identity politics

There has been a lot going on with nymwars. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock :-), this controversy revolves around Google’s latest offered service, Google Plus. In a departure from most of its social services to date, Google has been demanding that people use their “real name” on their Google profiles, rather than allowing people the freedom to choose how and what they use for their name and what is publicly visible or private about the name. There has been quite a bit of collateral fallout from this in multiple directions.

Firstly, Google’s own policies are ill defined and inconsistent. Exchanges between Google’s administrative personnel and people who have had their accounts suspended reveal a complete inconsistency about the definition of “real” name or “common” name. Oddly enough, you can designate your gender as private. But if you’re forced to display your name as “Jane,” that kind of defeats the purpose…

Alarmingly, one of the ways Google wishes to “verify” an account is through examination of Government ID, which in itself raises a whole host of questions about data retention (having sent them an image of your personal ID, what are Google’s guarantees about how they handle the data, how they delete it, how they safeguard it from being hacked into and stolen while they have it, etc.)

As far as privacy advocates are concerned, the refusal of Google to allow pseudonyms (which should not be mistaken for anonymity, although someone being anonymous might use a pseudonym) is a basic problem in of itself. Examples cited include the need for people to keep their names off the Internet in connection with their online activities. These include people who are victims of stalkers or domestic abuse, people who are potentially endangered if facts about them become known to friends or family (such as LGBT youth).

It can even be as simple as not wanting your car insurance sales representative to remark to you, during a phone conversation, that since you said on your blog you were going to be on vacation, to reschedule the phone conversation to the week after you return. (Yes, this happened to a friend of mine.) Perhaps you want to discuss political and other topics online without your employer finding out about your views. Or talk about your children while respecting their right to privacy until such a time as they can choose for themselves how much about themselves they want on the ‘net.

And oddly enough, Google has not listened to any of these very reasonable arguments and instead dug its feet in deeper and deeper. And the customer service side of it is increasingly erratic and inconsistent. No company, no matter what it is offering, can risk that kind of customer service. Particularly when it is documented online for all to see.

All of these and more have been covered very ably in a number of places — I suggest starting with these: My Name Is Me, Geek Feminism: Who Is Harmed by a Real Names Policy?, and a list of related articles curated by Todd Vierling. You can also find a good deal of discussion on twitter with, of course, the #nymwars tag.

But California just passed a very interesting law that Google is going to run smack dab into, if it keeps this up. And that would be SB 636. Let me quote the most salient part (emphasis mine):

This bill would, for purposes of the program for victims of domestic violence or stalking, prohibit a person, business, or association from knowingly and intentionally publicly posting or displaying on the Internet, or soliciting, selling, or trading on the Internet, specified personal information of a program participant or other persons residing at the same address with a prescribed intent to cause great bodily harm or place a person in objectively reasonable fear for his or her personal safety. The bill would also prohibit a person, business, or association from intentionally publicly posting or displaying on the Internet specified personal information of a program participant or other persons residing at the same address if the participant has made a demand on the person, business, or association to not disclose that information, as specified. Violation of these provisions would be subject to specified civil penalties.

(Icon courtesy of Amy Rothstein)

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