Real Names in the Networked Global Community

by JenniferCobb on 09/09/2011

At the recent Edinburgh International TV Festival, Andy Carvin of NPR tweeted a question to Eric Schmidt — “How does Google justify its real names only policy on Google+ when it could put some people at grave risk?”  Carvin was referring to places like Libya and Syria where the government routinely uses the Internet as a way to identify dissidents.  In the conversation that followed (you can read a partial transcript on Google+ at Schmidt asserts that Google+ is essentially an “identity service” whose ultimate goal is to provide better Google products and services to its enormous user base.  The primary concern evidenced in Schmidt’s reply was not a desire to create an Internet safe for democracy, but one safe for commerce.  In defending the controversial Google+ real names policy, he said, “So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth and so on, there are all sorts of reasons.”

In this conversation, Schmidt does pay lip service to the notion that strong identities can be used as a way to combat the more nefarious elements of the Web.  He claims, “there are people who do really, really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank.”  While I suppose you could argue his heart is in the right place, I for one don’t really want our moral standing to be ranked by a global for-profit corporation whose primary motivation is shareholder value.  The incentive structure is simply too twisted.

The agenda for our civil spaces is now being actively set by companies with a vested interest in knowing more and more about us.  Randy Zuckerberg (Mark’s sister and Facebook’s marketing chief) has said that “anonymity on the Internet has to go away.”  Radical transparency benefits Facebook and Google.  It most likely does not benefit us or the democracy we live in, which allows us – for example – to vote anonymously as a way of protecting us and enabling greater freedom.

The whole concept of identity is becoming more than a little confusing in the online world.  In fact, our “identity” is often scattered across the web in different places – Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, email, etc. just as it is on the offline world.  But the distinction between who I am (identity) and how you know who I am (authentication) has become increasingly blurred now that Google, Facebook and Twitter have blanketed the web with easy log-in services.  I can use my identity with one of those services to authenticate myself.  These services therefore have a strong interest in making sure that my information is clean and accurate – that my identity is true. People trust Google and a virtuous circle builds as we troll the Internet with our Google or Facebook passports, logging in and relying on the trust we carry along with our Google or Facebook identities.

What most people don’t realize is that when you log onto a site with Facebook or Google, those companies can then track your whole click stream on that site.  The more we rely on them to make our online lives easier, the more they know about us.  And this knowledge equals huge financial power.  For them it is a virtuous circle that leads to lots of revenue.  Social media for them, not for us.

Schmidt does come back around to the issues of social media in the context of repressive regimes and he concludes that Google+ is not really for them.  “In the Western world, what we decided to do was to take the position that we wanted people to be willing to be at least identified by some sort of a real name. And the reason had to do with this identity point I was making earlier. . . .  In the case of countries like Iran and Syria, and in fact I’m working on a book on this so I’ve looked at this pretty thoroughly, it’s a whole different ball of wax. There, there’s no assumption of privacy, everyone assumes that the Internet is bugged and that the secret police are after them. So their sensibilities are extremely different.”

And he is right.  But it is not a very reassuring answer.  If we play this out a little, he is saying that those people who live under repressive regimes would probably be smart to use other tools.  And there are some out there.  Tor, which protects your identity online, is one good example.  But in most cases these technologies are hard to use, requiring real technical skill to install, configure and run.  Therefore only the most dedicated and technically sophisticated dissidents take the time to figure out how to use safe tools.   And at this point there are not a lot of other options.  There isn’t exactly tons of venture money flooding into the hands of people who are interested in building tools specifically for the use of these small and generally quite poor populations.  This is a new Digital Divide.

I look forward to hearing what Eric Schmidt has to say in his book length version of the article he penned in the December, 2010 Foreign Affairs, co- authored with Jared Cohen.  They argued that we may be moving toward a “nonpolar world” (Richard Haass) where “dozens of actors” will exert checks and balances on the “interconnected estate” – including activists, NGOs, governments and the private sector.  In this complex mix, “free-market and democratic governments will be best suited to manage and cope”.  In order to let this happen, it is critical, they argue, to avoid “the over regulation of the technology sector, which has thus far thrived on entrepreneurial investment and open networks.”

A cynical response to this vision could be that Schmidt is arguing that the emerging global network should be one safe for the market activities of the Internet giants.  This will naturally expand their markets further, gathering untold amounts of information on almost every person on the planet.

As Schmidt and Cohen note, IT companies “deal in a commodity that is inherently political.”  This is a worrisome fact that demands our attention.  They are basically saying, we are the good guys.  We are on your side.  Trust us.  But, in fact, technology is once again racing ahead of policy, leaving some very important decisions in the hands of actors who are too self-interested to be objective.  I am reminded of the ancient question – who will guard the guardians?


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