Thursday, February 24, 2011

The freedom to be who you want to be…

Peter Steiner’s iconic “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon may have been drawn in jest--but his point was deadly serious, as recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown. In reality, as the web has developed--with users anywhere able to post a blog, share photos with friends and family or “broadcast” events they witness online--the issue of identity has become increasingly important.

So, we’ve been thinking about the different ways people choose to identify themselves (or not) when they’re using Google--in particular how identification can be helpful or even necessary for certain services, while optional or unnecessary for others. Attribution can be very important, but pseudonyms and anonymity are also an established part of many cultures -- for good reason.

When it comes to Google services, we support three types of use: unidentified, pseudonymous and identified. And each mode has its own particular user benefits.
Unidentified. Sometimes you want to use the web without having your online activity tied to your identity, or even a pseudonym—for example, when you’re researching a medical condition or searching for that perfect gift for a special someone. When you’re not logged into your Google Account (or if you never signed up for one), that’s how you’ll be using our services. While we need to keep information like IP addresses and cookies to provide the service, we don’t link that information to an individual account when you are logged out.
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.
Identified. There are many times you want to share information with people and have them know who you really are. Some products such as Google Checkout rely on this type of identity assurance and require that you identify yourself to use the service. There may be other times when it’s more desirable to be identified than not, for example if you want to be part of a community action project you may ask, “How do I know these other people I see online really are community members?”

Equally as important as giving users the freedom to be who they want to be is ensuring they know exactly what mode they’re in when using Google’s services. So recently we updated the top navigation bar on many of our Google services to make this even clearer. In the upper right hand corner of these Google pages, you will see an indicator of which account, if any, you are signed into.

We’re also looking at other ways to make this more transparent for users. While some of our products will be better suited to just one or two of those modes, depending on what they’re designed to do, we believe all three modes have a home at Google.


Tinfoil 2.0 said...

Thank you for explicitly acknowledging the value of anonymity and pseudonymity on the internet. If only other major services would do the same.

peanut said...

Unfortunately I'm afraid a complete pseudonymous use of your services is not possible.

That is because I have to verify a google account by entering a code, which I can only receive by Text to a mobile phone (which is usually linked to a specific offline existence, at least if I don't want to get an additional anonymous prepaid mobile which is also forbidden in some countries).

I understand the motivation behind this, to prevent spammers from mass-signing in, but: Some time ago it was also possible to receive the code by a voice call to a phone which was not linked to your person (at least not so close), e. g. a public phone. Why was this funcion removed?

Even If I use a totally pseudonymous profile with no personal data from my real identity, google could link this profile with my mobile number used for activation and so make a connection to my real identity, if my mobile number becomes public somewhere sometimes. So at least I have to trust Google.

Or do you delete the mobile number used for Google account activation from your database by any chance?

djpaulisadog said...

While I understand the argument for privacy, I wonder whether in some cases it might be of some benefit to have an Identification as opposed to Anonymity. Information associated with users in disaster situations, for example, may make it much easier for identification and reunification. As Google continues to support disaster response and recovery efforts, it will be interesting to see how they are able to leverage data about such users to facilitate these efforts.

One suggestion on increasing transparency may be to make "History" a top line item - either at the top of the GMail page, or an item listed under "More" as opposed to "Even More". This may help remind users that while logged in, there is a likelihood that their search activities are being recorded.

Nick said...

@peanut - your definition of pseudonymous is different to the Google definition.

Bruno said...

Wow. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-articulated rationale for the redesigned top navigation bar.

You know, it's funny - When I first noticed the changes to the top nav in my Gmail account earlier this week, the only thing that stood out to me was the fact that the "Sign out" link had been hidden. Whereas before, the "Sign out" link was included in the top nav itself, and I could sign out of Gmail with a single click, now I'm required to first click on my name, and then click on the "Sign out" link. Hmmm.

In fact, for a moment, I even thought that this redesign might've been a calculated move by Google to keep people from signing out of Gmail. After all, if I don't sign out of Gmail, Google can continue to track my Web History and associate it with my account. This would actually seem like a logical business move for a company whose entire revenue stream is based on their ability to serve more targeted ads using information they gather about me, like, oh I don't know, my web history.

Silly me. As it turns out, this latest redesign was actually a calculated move by Google to help me protect my privacy. It certainly makes sense, and is consistent with many of Google's other recent efforts to protect online privacy.

Bravo Google. Again you have proven yourself to be the champion of corporate transparency, consumer privacy, and all that is right and good in this world.

Oh one other thing - Please let me know as soon as possible if my kid Bruno Jr. won the Doodle-4-Google contest.

Thanks kindly,

john said...

Google, great job on being proactive and leading others in setting higher privacy standard.

We just launched a new service which might be of interest to other readers. Like it is was stated, even if you are in "Unidentified" mode, Google and others track your IP and use cookies to deliver their service. If you use, we provide you with your own virtual desktop/computer and then you don't have to worry that your true IP gets exposed, or that some cookies get stored on your computer. Much safer and help protect your privacy. We would love to hear what others think of our new service. Let us know!

vincent said...

IMHO the new header does not help to protect privacy at all. Actually, it goes against the objectives detailed in the post:

First, it takes an additional click to log out, so users are less likely to be unidentified when they need to be. I think that Google knows - more than any other company - what an additional click means.

Second, the pseudonym that is displayed does not protect privacy at all since it is still bound to the same ID in your logs. It's even worth, now a user can be tricked by an attacker to believe that she is logged in her account and do a search that will be recorded in the attacker web search history: the attacker just has to create an account and use the same pseudonym than it's victim...

Nancy said...

I appreciate you making this distinction, particularly in our changing times. I am curious as to how to balance anonymity such that a user doesn't become a victim versus a wolf hiding behind the sheep's clothing od anonymity.

peanut said...

@nick Could you please explain that to me some more? Where is the difference?

Steve said...

If nothing else, thanks for making the design of that top bar infinitely better than it was before.

kerosene said...

Good on Google. Allowing people to choose their online identity
is very important.

Tom said...

Everything said about privacy pales when juxtaposed against Google's claim they can precisely identify all US citizens by the tools with which they monitored us and also Google's enthusiasm to freely share that knowledge with the most dangerous entity on planet earth--the U.S. federal government.
Furthermore, who can trust any business that foments unrest and rebellion in another (foreign) nation?
Google is not user friendly. It tracks people like big brother for the feds and supports war in the streets... Be intelligent: don't google.

barkleyfan said...

As there are 2 people in recorded history with my full name, pseudonyms are a must for me.

Bob said...


I think that what Nick was getting at... was that in the context of this particular post, when Google is referring to being pseudonymous, they mean in regards to how you appear to other people, not how you appear to Google. In other words, Google will still know who you are, but you can post under a pseudonym on a blog, for instance.

crasshopper said...

Quora disallows pseudonyms. If a player as big as Google is fine with them, who is Quora to strong-arm users?

FSeanBickford said...

using a single account with 3 different permissions settings does not protect freedom or anonymity. One more nail in the coffin against personal privacy and on our way to a police state nation. Long live corporate fascism.

techical said...

wow what a super project that i am eagerly waiting to beat facebook....plz invite anyone me to take a look of wonderful project by google

ene13 said...

¿Por qué hasta ayer podía ser ene 13 en todos los servicios de Google - includo Buzz- y ahora no?

Hasta ayer incluso los servicios que en las reglas indicais como "los que necesitan un nombre real" me funcionaban como ene 13. Buzz y Profile eran ene 13 y no habia ningún problema. Desde que he entrado en Google + no solo no soy ene 13 sino que por insistir me habeis bloqueado el perfil : (

Del mismo modo, que diferencia hay entre que ponga ene 13 o ene trece o un nombre "real" que podria inventarme igualmente. Es completamente absurdo.

Este error es uno de los mas criticados en Facebook porque a los diseñadores, artistas y creadores se nos obliga a hacer cosas raras para poder poner el nombre que necesitamos porque es este el nombre con el que se nos conoce y no otro.

Por favor, en serio, permitid el uso de pseudonimo en todos los servicios porque hay gente que es conocida por ese nombre y no otro. Y sois Google por favor no caigais en errores de Facebook.

mathew said...

My Google Profile was flagged as violating community standards for not providing my full legal name. So it seems that Google does not live by its stated public policy principles.

ilikepie said...

@Bob, while I agree with your assessment of Nick's argument, I think it needs to be clarified a little further.

Google does indeed address a level of privacy where a person would not want their activity tied to their identity in a manner visible to Google itself. It even gave some practical examples. This is their first tier. Medical conditions are mentioned; a good one I can think of off the top of my head is transexualism. A trans man would certainly not want to expose this kind of information to a company who states the following in public:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, 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 Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."

Combine that with the fact that the other thing Google is famous for, targeted advertising, doesn't even involve "the authorities" but rather other businesses, and there is a legitimate need to conceal some information from Google. Which, as evidenced by the above quote, Google is refreshingly and consistently candid about pointing out.

In the post, this level of privacy can currently only be expected if you are not signed into Google services. This, I believe, was what Nick was trying to point out. Anonymous, the way it was used, means "Google and other folks don't know who you are", and pseudonymous means "Google knows who you are, but other folks don't".

I personally enjoy it when businesses and websites have a "the business doesn't know who you are, but other folks do" privacy tier. Whenever I'm designing any kind of CMS, I go out of my way to make that the case, right down to purging old accounts and always one-way hashing sensitive data like passwords. Google has a different philosophy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that Google as a tool is only useful for some things and not others.

SignpostMarv said...

Probably 9 people call me by the name on my birth certificate.

However, there are far more (several orders of magnitude at least) people who call me by some variant of "SignpostMarv Martin" (e.g. Marv, Sign, Signpost etc.). I've had mail delivered to me through Royal Mail under the name SignpostMarv Martin.

Yet I'm reading that my friend OpenSource Obscure gets his account suspended for using a pseudonym that I (and doubtless similar numbers of people to myself) have known him by for at least 4 years if not more.

This strikes me as a disconnect between the statement that "we believe all three modes have a home at Google." with reference to "unidentified", "identified" and "Pseudonymous".

sol said...

Why, when you seem to understand the need to allow pseudonymity on many Google services, has Google instituted a "Real Name" policy for Google Profiles and for Google+?

wouldn't you like to know said...

This is kind of troubling, to say the least.

I sure hope that this is in error and they're going to restore this guy's stuff (although it seems kind of calculated-- who's going to bug about some SL dude?)

I hope they don't take it any further and start trying to use SSNs or Paypal or something to verify names.

Resuna said...

I hope this approval of pseudonymity has not been weakened. I'm seeing reports that Google is removing pseudonymous Google Profiles.

Moggs Oceanlane said...

I think the concerns are a resulting from some profiles tthat have been banned which are names peole have been logging under and been recognised under for a very long time. Those names make them more identifiable to the peoeple they want to communicate with than their actual name or photo.

After all... a name or photo on its own has zero value or credibility - it's only after that name or profile picture/icon/avatar is associated with worlds and actions that people begin to assign things like reputation, credibility and trust.

When a name with reputation and credibility is removed because someone decided it lacked 'realism' it becomes a concern - particularly when peole have been familiar with that individual under whatever name they were using for a number of years.

I don't believe the policy is that clear cut. It seems to imply that if it's a name that those who you regularly communicate with recognise and relate to, then it's ok... and that whole identified/unidentified/pseudonymous, identified post really is not clear.

I understand abuse reports (is someone using their account to harass, spam or bully?) but I don't understand the insistence on names. People use nicknames/onine names and pseudonyms that are recognisable to those they want to communicate and therefore credibible to their target audience for a number of reasons including:

* reputation, credibility and trust - a number of people have gone by the same nickname online for a number of years. It's how their networks, peers, colleagues, friends and family recognise them. To change their nickname to their actual name may mean people cannot find them; don't trust the name - it's a personal rebranding exercise which we all know can be costly... and not always successful.

* safety for those in abuse situations - people who have been the vicitims of abuse, vicimisation or stalkers and who prefer not to use a readily identifiable name and photo for saftey reasons

* online safety 101 - is it really wise to give all of your personal details away and make yourself readily identifiable if you don't know who you are talking to?

* Personal preference, it's the name or nickname they prefer to go by offline and online.

* People who have seemingly real names and/or photos are not necessarily using their own real name or photo and may use the attached account to lie, deceive and mislead... again, the name and photo are just a tool they use to do this... they tell us zero on their own about the persons motivation, it's only their actions and words that do this.

Perhaps simply having the real name hidden and instead having a field preferred name might be a happy medium for many (with the ability for people to restrict entirely sharing of the email address)

I quite liked the botgirl summary - she uses the word avatar but it could just as easily be replaced with 'nickname' or pseudonym:

Disclosure: I use three main online names - one primarily for work; one primarily for social and one that started as being primarily for second life but has blurred lines with personal and work. I don't use my full real name in real life but instead am referred to mostly by my last name as a first name or... by some friends by other nicknames, including Moggs - which comes from real life but ended as a seconlife identity. My work online name is a single word, with a real photo. I've been using it for over 10 years with and without a photo. My personal account is a single word that probably seems random to many but I've been using that online longer than my work account - over 10 years; my second life account (this one) has been in use for ~4-5 years. Each of these profiles have associated reputation and trust.

Moggs Oceanlane said...

I've shared my thoughts about this in google plus.

Tali said...

So, given the crackdown on pseudonyms on Google+, this post has been overturned and is now just so much fluff and marketing spin?

moonflowerdragon said...

A pity it doesn't apply with Google+, where I may be unable to connect with pseudonymous friends.

Jim said...

Apparently this policy has done a complete 180 at Google in Google+. Any attempt to realize it under Google+ could have that profile suspended or removed. I wish whoever wrote this would get together with whoever decides public policy for Google+ accounts and not have diametrically opposed policies withing Google itself. So much for convergence of accounts to a single account. See G+ discussion: or the Thinq new article here:

Ghosty said...

It would seem that there is now a disconnect between this sentiment uttered in February, and what may happen to pseudonymous accounts on Google Plus. I find it hard to believe that Google, of all the companies on Earth, suffers from lack of knowledge on how it's users actively use the Internet to communicate with each other. My pseudonym is highly personal and representative of myself and the works that I create; if Google Plus won't accept that me by pseudonym, they it won't have me by any name at all. My image and my online identity are more important than Google's network.

Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

I guess that all this is now moot and the policy was dumped? I'm referring to the new Google Profiles policy.