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.

But…

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.

Meanwhile…

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.

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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

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Take Your Base

or, “Fake War II”

My favorite story by Crap Mariner is a lot longer than 100 words… It takes up most of this post in his blog, from almost exactly a year ago: “How to take a punch”.

The latest schoolyard bully turns out to be Google… or people claiming to be working for and speaking for them, with regard to the “permitted identity” doublethink at GooglePlus. This guy may only be a lone nutjob, or he may be another tip of the same iceberg that occasionally sinks avatar accounts on Facebook.

Andrew Bunner – Yesterday 9:59 AM – Public
If you see a person with an obviously fake name, go to their profile and find the “Report Profile” link in the bottom of the left column. Report it as a “Fake Profile”. We want Google+ to be place for real people to connect with other real people.

Outside of Google — and allegedly in Second Life — there’s this guy. I’m not even going to bother quoting him. Whatever…

Turns out my post of last week was pretty much right. Whether or not we were misled by Google back in February, we expected too much from the company who, if they didn’t actually invent datamining and targeted advertising, certainly turned it into The Way Thing Are.

And the purges have begun.

I have been a consistent user of Google products since before the first post in this blog, when I installed their Picasa photo editor on my hard drive and began using the associated website to share photos of virtuality. Blogger and Picasa are interlinked, making it extremely easy to insert photos here. That “public policy” blog of theirs from February states, in part:

Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. You can use pseudonyms to upload videos in YouTube or post to Blogger.

[emphasis added]

What did they mean, then — that pseudonymous use is permitted only on those services? Was Picasa omitted intentionally? Does the February statement still mean today what it seemed to? Or, will the announced integration of Blogger and Picasa with Google+ remove the permission to use them pseudonymously?

I’m not waiting to find out the hard way, by being locked out of my own blog and photo collection because my Google profile is avatarian. And I will not succumb to attaching my wallet identity to my avatar’s. That’s nobody’s goddamn business, unless I say so — least of all the data scavengers who will try to make it, literally, their business.

All my base are belong to me, motherfucker… and I’m going to take my base… elsewhere.

This blog will (if it hasn’t already) have its 15,000th visit some time today. It may have a different address before the weekend’s done. Once this is posted, I’m going to export the whole thing (153 posts, plus ancillary pages) to an XML file on my hard drive. I’m looking at the option of actually paying (gasp!) for blog hosting service: Squarespace looks pretty nice, and costs less for a year of basic service than two months’ tier in InWorldz. I’m going to join Flickr, too… just in case.

I’m not fond of how Mitch Wagner expressed his opinion in this G+ thread, but I do have to agree with his central point, one I’ve made a few times as well: “If you don’t like the rules, don’t go there.”

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The Pitfall of Early Adoption

Anyone who reads this blog has probably figured out that I have a great deal of respect and admiration (as well as a bit of envy) for the Oldbies of Second Life. It’s a prime reason why I jumped into InWorldz with both pixel feet, too: to be a pioneer in a new world, and leave my mark on it… and yes, to sit back in my rocker a few years from now, boring the young’ns with stories of byegone days and basking in the senescent glow of Oldbiedom.

The history I’ve uncovered, however, isn’t all about pioneers in a new land… it’s also about first users/customers of a service that’s — often painfully — in beta. Second Life made a lot of blunders down blind alleys in its earliest days, mostly while trying to “monetize”… and each time they said “Oops, that didn’t work, let’s try this instead,” someone was trying to hang them for being social engineers as well as money-grubbers.

So, while I envy the Oldbies for blazing the social trails and building the first “layer” of cultural artifacts on the Grid, at the same time I’m content to have not lived through the upheaval of Linden Lab’s early experiments in overseeing the world. You might also recall that I tried out another closed-beta virtual world scheme with the unfortunate handle of “Project X”… compared to that bunch, the first crop of Lindens were social and marketing geniuses.

What I’m getting to is this: if a service of any kind (not just a virtual world) tells you it’s in beta, take them at their word. Expect stumbles and false starts; expect one hand not necessarily to know what the other is doing; expect policy development to lag behind features; expect more bugs in the administration than the code.

Google+ Beta has been live for… what, a week now? And already, there’s a problem. With apologies to Opensource Obscure, the problem is superficially about his account being suspended because Google says it violates their community standards, without clearly saying how (perhaps it’s the use of “Opensource”?). Peel back a layer, and the problem seems to stem from a certain (intentional?) ambiguity in those standards, as they apply to account names. In my opinion, the problem’s true taproot is in unrealistic expectations in the minds of the early adopters.

“Here, finally,” it was widely said a mere few days ago, “is the Facebook killer! Surely they will respect our chosen identities, which hundreds of us have used within, and integrated through, other Google services (Gmail, Blogger, Picasa, Reader, etc.) for years!” And, without paying much heed to the failures of both Wave and Buzz, they — including me — jumped into Google+ with both pixel feet.

Who promised us that Google would be any more indulgent of avatarian identity than Facebook has been? Or, did we delude ourselves with our own early adopter enthusiasm? Who expected a beta product to work — and be administered — right out of the box like a final rollout? Or, did we only see the good half of Google’s reputation for product development, and rely on what has been reported as a full year of in-house alpha testing — while forgetting that the in-house environment had no conception whatsoever of the kind of alternate identity we avatars live by?

No one should need to be reminded of this, but, for the record: Google is a business. It makes money selling advertising space crammed into the “free” services we sign up for. Advertisers want the biggest bang for their buck, which they get with narrowly-targeted placement matched to the aggregated online behaviors of individual users: what they search for, and where from (using Google); which blogs and webpages they read regularly (using Google Analytics, Reader, and Friend Connect); what geolocation and names are tagged in photographs (uploaded to Picasa)…

Get the picture? We all railed loud and long about Facebook’s data-mining, and how since avatarian identities foil their plans to aggregate users with purchasing information, they want nothing to do with us. Google is the 800-kiloton gorilla, the originator of the practice, the main reason it’s what everyone does now… why did we early adopters of Google+ expect anything different from them?

~

Meanwhile… from inside Google+, it’s beginning to look a little like the spamathon when SL bought Avatars United. I’m being added to circles by genuine friends and acquaintances, of course, but also by complete strangers, and at least one who I deliberately ignore… and there are 500 people in the “suggested” category!  Some of them I know by name and reputation alone, most I’ve never heard of, and many aren’t even avatars!

~

While I’ve been slogging through the draft of this post, Honour McMillan has already trumped me, in her usual brilliant tongue-in-cheek style. Go read this, right now: Don’t Panic! Avatars do not carry the Plague, Cooties or even the Swine Flu.

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