Sic semper tyrannis

I don’t wish to do anything so stupid as to claim that Google’s behavior with regard to pseudonymous use of Google+, and the other services they’re folding into it, sinks to the level of, say, the Assad regime in Syria, Qadaffi in Libya, Saleh in Yemen, or the former Mubarak cabal in Egypt. Google, after all, are not sending armed troops out to find, arrest, torture and rape its opponents, nor are they shooting protesters.


If you will grant (for the length of this post, at least) that tyranny is as much a mindset as it is physical action, you may be able to see a parallel.

Google + is, at this writing, about six weeks old. So is the effort to persuade them to (at first) clarify their carefully ambiguous policy on pseudonymous use, and consequently to change or abandon it. The articles, blog posts, and posts on G+ itself have come from every corner of the Web. Far from being an “edge case” (if you’ll excuse my use of that phrase), we Avatarians have been joined by the voices of all those who protect their private lives by signing their public speech with a persistent but (one hopes) untraceable pen-name. The list of “mainstream” publications who have editorialized on the subject, as exemplified in my browser history, is impressive. People and organizations whose opinions in the marketplace might have influenced Google in other times have come out four-square against the real-names-only policy. There has been a series of symbolic — and sometimes colorful — protests.

To no avail: Google Plus Tells Pseudonym Lovers to Shove It, from ReadWriteWeb.

That artice links to this post on G+ by Saurabh Sharma, a Google+ product manager.

Bottom line, easy to read between the others: Google does not care. They have set their policy, no matter how poorly worded, and they will not be moved. In fact (as Tateru Nino clarifies here), they made it even more draconian by replacing the previous, though arbitrarily and capriciously enforced, appeal process with a fiat: you have four days to change your account name to comply, or Google summarily removes your services, full stop. No appeal.


In response to last week’s riots in urban England, Prime Minister David Cameron put forth the notion that

the government will debate whether phone services could be disrupted during riots, if blackouts could be imposed on social networks, or whether websites would agree to remove photos or messages that could incite violence.

And in San Fransisco, this past Friday, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system disabled the wireless communication relay services in four of its stations, in response to a protest about a fatal shooting by BART security.

Linton Johnson, BART’s spokesman, told the local KTVU television channel that BART “didn’t try to shut down the protest. They simply turned off the cell service so it couldn’t become viral.

“It really is just a cost-benefit analysis of where your freedom of speech begins to threaten the public safety.”

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that any cooperation — if it exists — between Google and the National Security Agency cannot be independently verified through the Freedom of Information Act… and Google will also neither confirm nor deny that they have already turned over data from their European installations to US intelligence agencies, as reported here:

At the center of this problem is the USA PATRIOT ACT, which states that companies incorporated in the United States must hand over data administered by their foreign subsidiaries if requested.

Not only that, but they can be forced to keep quiet about it in order to avoid exposing active investigations and alert those targeted by the probes.

This situation poses a serious problem for companies like Microsoft, Google or Amazon, which offer cloud services around the world, because their subsidiaries must also respect local laws.

For example, European Union legislation requires companies to protect the personal information of EU citizens and this is clearly not something that Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or any of their EU customers can do.

Just by the way: Google’s real-name-only policy may also violate those same European laws.

And if all this weren’t bad enough, consider the insidiously named “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act”, a.k.a. H.R. 1981, just voted out of committee and headed for floor debate.

In particular, the bill would require any commercial providers of Internet access to keep for at least 12 months a record of which users were assigned to particular network addresses at particular times.


Mandatory data retention would force your Internet Service Provider to create vast and expensive new databases of sensitive information about you. That information would then be available to the government, in secret and without any court oversight, based on weak and outdated electronic privacy laws.

That same data could become available to civil litigants in private lawsuits–whether it’s the RIAA trying to identify downloaders, a company trying to uncover and retaliate against an anonymous critic, or a divorce lawyer looking for dirty laundry. These databases would also be a new and valuable target for black hat hackers, be they criminals trying to steal identities or foreign governments trying to unmask anonymous dissidents.


A side-debate of sorts has sprung up on the best way to deal with Google+ and their ilk: whether to just walk away from it, or continue the verbal battle against it. Botgirl made a strong case for the latter:

Google’s policy wouldn’t matter much if it were from a typical start-up social network. We could just opt [out] and go on our merry way. But because of Google’s dominant and ubiquitous role in the virtual environment, being excluded from their services will diminish our voices in mainstream virtual discourse. Our blogs, websites, video and other creative output will be at a competitive disadvantage as search results are tailored to social circles. Whatever final policy Google enacts is likely to be influential on other companies and on public policy. So it’s time for Netizens to speak out and turn the tide.

My answer is to do both: protect your data and intellectual property by removing it from the hands of those who would use it in ways personally abhorrent to you and in violation of your rights (what few we have left…), and continue to protest. The issue is bigger than Google’s and Facebook’s account name policies; the issue is the control of information — and therefore, of people — by those whose power it threatens.

If the hints I’ve dropped above are not sufficient — or even if they are — I urge you to go read Miso Susanowa’s latest post at her new blog, NetPolitik.

Sic semper tyrannis

This, always, to tyrants



6 responses to “Sic semper tyrannis

  1. I agree that there's a troubling trend, both by corporations and by governments, to track, correlate and store everything we do on the Net and connect it to our identity. On the corporate side, it's driven by profit. On the government side, by security paranoia. Although we can speculate about what's behind Google's motivations for the real name policy, it's just guesswork (beyond it being tied to a strategy that will create more value for their shareholders.)

  2. +1 for the photoshopped Eagle Nebula :DReally, I have to speculate now, given Google's bullheaded intransigence. This is a company that has bent over backwards for years to be proactive to its community. Thier continuing push against mounting and widespread questions and resistance just floors me.It's time to at least entertain the notion that Google, by this incredible course, is trying to tell us something.In my old neighborhoods, pressures were put on people by gangs; pressures that could destroy your life or hurt the people you loved in an instant. People in poor and gang-run neighborhoods know all about codes; codes used when whites are around; codes used when cops are around, and codes used when under unseen pressure from one faction or another. Think about teenagers – they all have verbal codes for when parents are around; we all have used them. I've used the "colored handkerchief code" several times in my life.I think about Google's actions; I think about what Eric Schmidt said. No, not the parroting of "If you've got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" that has everyone so upset. It was what he said after that that rang a little bell for me and made me give more thought to my puffy little speculations:"The reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time… and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act… it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."THAT made my ears buzz. That sounded like someone who was attempting to transmit a signal under duress. Maybe I've seen too many movies; read too much about codes and cyphers; have knowledge of code catchphrases from studies of the American, French and Romanian revolutions… but it is very curious, on the heels of a statement sure to flash a warning to anyone who's been listening to the fanatics and crazies for the last 10 years.What if Google is doing this because the Spooks are insisting on it, under the threats of the beginning anti-trust subpoenas against it? What if this is the way the Feds (and E8) are pressuring Google; with breaking up their business?What if Google is persisting in this hard-line, very-negative-press stance as a covert message: "the spooks are on us and we're trying to let you know"?I try hard to run this vigorously through the "tin-foil hat" filter, but the strange behaviour of Google Inc. will not allow me to simply toss this line of speculation into the bit bucket. I need more data; closer observation.Thx for the new blog link :)

  3. I've been thinking about that… and, again taking a cue from Miso:The usual reasoning behind the "wallet name" deal is the wallet itself, and its monetary contents — that is, pseudonyms dilute the resale value of the mined data to Google's obvious customers: advertisers. However, advertisers may not be their only customers. US intelligence agencies are constrained (currently) from directly gathering data on US citizens; they are not constrained from purchasing it from third parties.I.e., pseudonyms dilute the resale value of mined data in more than one category.

  4. Lalo, I'm sure you've read some of Lessig's work. We are seeing his fears play out, aren't we? As neo-Luddite, I could just pull the plugs on the Net, except for managing my banking and other hum-drum tasks.But I won't, and I suspect we'll look back at the era of the "Old Web" with a lot of nostalgia.By the way, I'll be suing you for using Virginia's state motto :P

  5. So much has been written about this. I agree that Miso´s NetPolitik is a great source. Interesting that european laws might be offended, but since when did american webcompanies care about any other law than US law. When did US forces abroad for that matter?

  6. Hi, only just got to your excellent post after a week in the country and moving my blog, reader and search engine away from Google. I do not think that my stuff will thereby be anonymous, it's a semi-retaliatory stance … and a case of making sure my eggs aren't all in one basket.I do believe that this Google+ move is basically Government inspired/lead… the whole 1984 story never considered the possibility that we would all be sucked into substantial monitoring so voluntarily…. offering up all our personal information naively only to wake up one day to find we have given all our privacy away.Ah well…let's stick with the Nyms at least.

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