Google+, real names and real problems

At the launch of Google+, Google’s attempt to create an integrated social network similar to Facebook, I wrote about the potential benefits and risks of the new service to journalists who use social media in dangerous circumstances.

Despite early promises of relatively flexible terms of service at Google+, the early days of implementation were full of arbitrary account suspensions – particularly of pseudonymous users – and the appeals process was unclear. The result was a lot of early bad press for the service from the traditional “first adopter” crowd, a framing it has subsequently struggled to escape.

As implemented, Google+’s policy against pseudonyms imitated the long-standing stance of Facebook. That sites’ founders claim real names foster civility, and struggle to insist that everyone on their service uses their given name.

But as Google executive Eric Schmidt concedes, “[real names] are a more complicated question” in countries like Iran and Syria. In those places it can be dangerous for sources or even reporters to use traceable identities online, so pseudonyms are frequently used. In such circumstances, deletions based on user complaints or reports for violations of terms of service can be misused against independent journalists who are the targets of coordinated government campaigns against their work.

This week, Google+ shifted its policy and the sites’ technical implementation slightly. It has taken steps to allow its users to use well-known pseudonyms rather than their given name as part of the suspension appeal process. The company has also indicated it may move further on this topic to allow new pseudonyms to be developed on the site, without requiring evidence of other uses.

Does such policy shifts make Google+ a better, safer site for independent journalists? Frankly, that remains mostly an academic question while Facebook remains the dominant social platform in most of these countries: for now journalists will continue to work where the audience and the sources are.

In practice, though, most cases of silencing sources and journalists are less about the details of the pseudonym policy itself, and more about the suspension procedure. Most at-risk bloggers and sources don’t see a problem with faking a convincing false account or two on Facebook or Google if necessary. Neither company can or will strongly enforce real names across the board. It’s impossible to check everyone’s ID at the door of these websites.

The damaging consequence for press freedom comes when reporter and sources’ casual decision to disguise their real identity is used by their enemies to game social network sites into over-enforcing their terms of service. Overnight, reporters or sources are suspended, losing that precious audience or documentary record. A terms of service condition is bent to suit the agenda of a group determined to silence a point of view. (And it’s not just real names that get used for this. Claiming that legitimate news coverage is offensive or hateful can also work.)

Under these circumstances, few independent journalists are going to know how to argue their case against these Internet monoliths, even if the rules are in their favor. They will inevitably be dealing with low-level tech support representatives with a pre-recorded script in a foreign language — a script that almost certainly has no category for “Customer is an independent journalist who skirted our terms of service for their own safety.”

Can you fix such problems with service-wide rule changes? As Google executive Bradley Horowitz noted in his post, borderline cases represent a tiny minority of the cases social networks deal with. It may be that the greatest improvements that can be made are working out ways to quickly extract these unusual cases from the automated labyrinths of customer support that process hundreds of millions of users, to a human being with the time and expertise to understand the subtleties. This isn’t something that any company could make explicit, out of fear that every spammer will tick that “independent journalist” box. But concentrating on refining such procedures would help press freedom globally — and prevent some nasty publicity own-goals for these sites along the way.