Google+ Is A Trap

Google Docs – You create them, but they don’t belong to you

Not two months ago, I wrote:

…Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

With Google+, the straitjacket of authentication has perceptibly tightened. As Guardian blogger GrrlScientist discovered to her cost, it’s a little-known term of service that a Google Profile (which you need for any personalised Google service, not just Google+) must be in your own, real, everyday name. She has just found that all her Google services – Gmail, Reader, Blogger, Google Documents, YouTube, Google Plus – have been taken away, with apparently no recourse to appeal.

Have you created a Google Profile? (I know I have, but I don’t remember doing it. I just thought I was signing up to use Gmail.) If it isn’t in your real name, if it’s in a nickname, a pen name, the name of an alter ego or game character or a name you had to make up because your real one was gone already, then Google can take it away too.

How much could you lose, if Google suddenly decided to throw you into the outer darkness? More than you might easily imagine, as this similar case makes clear:

Now he had pretty much converted everything to Google services. He used its storage (and paid for extra capacity), used its social network, used its email and used its applications. He is a grad student and had more than 500 articles cached for research in his Google reader (gone); he had migrated all of his bookmarks to Google bookmarks (gone); he had consolidated on Google his 200 contacts (gone), his backup files (gone) and his docs (gone).

The guy even put all of his calendar items (doctors’ appointments, meetings, dates) onto Google, and they are now gone. He had used Google Maps extensively, and all of those records are gone. Oh — and it isn’t just access to new items either. His entire mail account and documented history have been deleted.

[Read the victim’s own testimony here]

Your documents, your emails, your pictures, your contacts – you life, dammit. If you have an Android Phone as well, I imagine you’re pretty much screwed. And let’s be perfectly clear, these people didn’t do anything wrong using their Google Profiles. Merely breaking an obscure term of an agreement they were in all probability barely aware of making has allowed Google to trash their online lives – and shatter their trust in one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Why would Google be so draconian, withdrawing their useful – for many now, almost essential – services for what seem arbitrary reasons? It is because they don’t want just to be service providers. Google see how they can be gatekeepers of an authenticated, business-friendly, government-friendly Web, one where your every move is – quite legally – observed and documented, where your online persona is precisely riveted to your real-world identity. An Internet, in other words, where everybody knows you’re a dog.

Now combine that with the same ubiquity and penetration into your personal life as Facebook or Twitter, combine it with the fact that you are happily providing Google with information about the people you know, by dividing them into different categories of trust, genetic kinship, etc., and you begin to wonder what you’re getting into.

But it’s clear what Google are. They’re getting into the business of delivering authenticated identities. You could call it policing.

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12 thoughts on “Google+ Is A Trap

  1. For me it is quite pleasant to see how Google is actually controlling the spread of fake profiles on their social networking site. There is no doubt that it can be a bad experience if you are a genuine person and get your profile zapped out by youtube but I think it is a good way to spread fear to the people that create fake profiles. The authentic profiles that get zapped out can be restored anyway and it is for the good of the genuine people out there on the social networking site. Do we want Google+ to be another Zorpia or Tagged? No!

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  2. But Taizy there’s a vast, vast gulf between preventing mass fake account creation and deleting the living profiles of what I think are quite obviously real people, including their documents and emails. Profiles created with pseudonyms for perfectly legitimate reasons.

    You say “the authentic profiles that get zapped out can be restored anyway”, but this is entirely in Google’s gift and real people have had their appeals rejected. Which should come as no surprise, as really they have no grounds for appeal. By using a pseudonym they did break the registration terms.

    So if Taizy C is not what your mamma named you, I strongly suggest you back your stuff up.

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    1. Hi Tim,

      I may have to withdraw my earlier endorsement of Chrome as a solution for net cafés!

      (For other purposes though, I can’t see a lot iof use. Maybe I could just imagine using it in a dual-boot setup. But the Chromebooks themselves Not quite ready for primetime I think.)

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  3. I’m looking into open source office solutions for my company that are like Google for this very reason. We do a lot of document and calendar sharing in Google, and we’re all starting to get a touch nervous about Google having ownership of our ideas.

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  4. Ever since the mess with Google Buzz, I’m growing less enthusiastic about Google with every new launch. The glory days of Google were when they launched Mail and Maps. Services that were not only very compelling, but absolutely disruptive. There was webmail and online maps before them, but these were at least 10 times better than any existing offering. And sometimes the model, like the basically unlimited storage of mail, aimed directly at the business model of competitors, who were using this scarcity as way to monetize!

    These days, whenever Google comes up with a new service, it’s playing catch-up. Buzz never did anything better than Twitter (I don’t know anyone that really uses Buzz). Even Google’s successes, like Android, are primarily following the market, rather than leading it.

    And now Google+. It’s prime feature seems to be “It’s not from the Evil Bastards at Facebook”. And then Google does an utterly Facebook-worthy move of running the broom right through user accounts. And end up in the same PR fiasco back with Buzz, when they told everyone you often e-mailed who else you often e-mailed.

    All the trust someone had back in the early days, when Google was the plucky little engineering company from Mountain View, has evaporated while Google has turned into a global moloch. With moves like this, I’m starting to have a difficult time figuring out what’s the difference between GooBook and Facgle.

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  5. There’s more to the “business-friendly” bit than might be obvious at first glance: if everyone uses real names — and especially if your publicly-visible profile includes the city & country you live in — other companies can link your Google account info with any other records they have, including banks, creditors, insurors, and anyone who wants to sell you something.

    Anything they can see can be integrated into their marketing, and even things like approving loans or setting insurance rates could be used. Whether or not the latter concepts are legal is not an indicator of whether or not they’ll be used that way.

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  6. You’re just paranoid. You watch too many tv dramas about good corporation sneakily uses people’s info to make money.

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    1. Has anybody made one like that? They should. But I don’t watch TV drama, the world is too entertaining. Google, I want to be a hero. But they’re a complex character, liable to say or do worrying stuff occasionally. This would be just interesting, even amusing, until you remember what incredible power they have. We’ve trusted them with so much.

      That they haven’t abused this position in any terribly serious way speaks very well of them of course, but you can never completely relax around that much power.

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