Google’s work to integrate its Google+ social networking site broadly with its other services could raise red flags for users who want to closely guard their privacy.
Google wants Google+ to be more than a stand-alone social network. It envisions Google+ integrating with most, maybe all, of its Web applications and sites to provide social sharing capabilities and possibly a uniform online identity.
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But there is a crucial difference between Google+ and other company services like Gmail, whose users have long been able to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy, if they wish. Google+ currently requires all members to use their real names — a policy on which it has said it will bend, but not how or when.
There may be a risk that people who use their real name in Google+ but use pseudonyms in other Google services may inadvertently expose their real identity by linking Google+ with those services.
Already there are glimpses of how Google+ integrations are altering identity elsewhere on Google. For example, Google has set up a tight integration between Google+ and its Picasa Web photo management service.
For starters, users have to agree to integrate their existing Picasa Web account with Google+ in order to join Google+. If they do so, the displayed user name on Picasa Web accounts becomes the real name used in Google+, replacing the one being used before if different. (The access settings for photos and albums remain the same as prior to the integration, according to Google.)
Without the Google+ integration, Picasa Web users retain the option of using a pseudonym. However, they then can’t have a Google+ account.
Asked for comment, a Google spokesman said via e-mail: “We designed Google+ with privacy in mind, including a number of features that offer users control over what and how they share. We’re always working to provide users with transparency and choice. We’ll continue to do so as we release new features and updates for our products.”
Currently, most Google consumer online services and applications are grouped under a master umbrella account, called a Google Account. It offers individual accounts for Gmail, Docs, YouTube, Calendar, Blogger, Voice, Groups, Reader and many others.
At this point, Google Account holders can tailor the user name displayed in some of those individual services. For example, one user can have a name shown on his Gmail messages, a different one for his YouTube account and another for a blog published on Blogger. Those names can be pseudonyms.
It’s not clear if options for having different names within a single umbrella Google Account will be maintained as Google pushes forward with the integration of Google+ and other Google services.
Of course, a way to be on Google+ but avoid dealing with its current and future integrations in Google services is to set up a separate Google Account just for it.
However, that would be inconvenient, as people would have to be logging in and out to toggle between their main Google Account with services they may have been using for years, like Gmail and Docs, and their other Google Account with just Google+.
Google has said that it supports various levels of user identification in its services. It allows access to some services, like its search engines, without requiring a Google Account, while allowing pseudonyms on others and requiring real names in other cases.
Google clearly wants users to apply a real public identity to their Google Accounts. An optional element of Google Accounts is the Profile, a public page in which people must use their real name and which is meant as a public online identity badge.
Previously, users could keep their Profile private. But since the end of July, all Profiles have been public, and Google has deleted private Profiles.
In addition, having a Google Profile is a requirement for Google+.
“In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile. That name will be used across Google services and in some cases it may replace another name you’ve used when sharing content under your Google Account. We may display your Google Profile identity to people who have your email address or other identifying information.”
At this point it’s not required for Google Account holders to set up either a Google Profile or a Google+ account. However, it seems likely that, more and more, lacking a Google+ account will mean missing out on some new features for Google services.
For example, this week Google unveiled an initial integration option between Google+ and Blogger that allows publishers to swap out their existing Blogger user profile and replace it with their Google+ profile.
While doing so is optional, Google trumpeted benefits tied to the integration. “In addition to giving your readers a more robust and familiar sense of who you are, your social connections will see your posts in their Google search results with an annotation that you’ve shared the post. Plus, bloggers who switch will automatically get access to the Google+ integrations we’ll be rolling out in the future,” the announcement reads.
Google did alert publishers that if they “blog under a pseudonym” and they don’t want their real names suddenly associated with their blogs “this integration may not work for you.”
So, basically, integrate with Google+ and slap your real name on your Blogger blog, or stick with your pseudonym and miss out on these current and future goodies.
Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said that, when announcing integration options for Google+, Google shouldn’t encourage users one way or another. “The descriptions need to be clear and neutral,” she said in a phone interview. That way, it will be less likely that people will end up accepting the integration without fully knowing the implications of the move for their online identity.
Google should also be very specific in explaining what the Google+ integrations will entail, said John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.
“Google needs to be crystal clear about what it means by integration. It must be simple and intuitive for users to control what information from pseudonymous accounts is shared on Google+,” he said via email.
It’s valid to raise concerns over Google’s decision to integrate Google+, which carries a real-name requirement for users, with other Google services people have been using with pseudonyms for years, said John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, in a phone interview.
Google’s nightmare scenario would be for a critical mass of users to inadvertently green-light Google+ integrations only to later complain that they didn’t know their pseudonyms in certain services would be replaced by their Google+ real name.
If that were to happen, Google could find itself in a privacy controversy that it can ill afford. The U.S. government has the company on a short leash, having mandated audits of its privacy policies and practices for the next 20 years after a privacy firestorm ignited with the launch of the now-closed Buzz service last year.
Buzz, a microblogging and social networking service, debuted with an integration with the Gmail webmail service that exposed users’ private e-mail contacts publicly and without authorization.
Since launching Google+ this summer, Google officials have been stressing that it makes it simple and intuitive for members to control what they share, with whom and how.
During this initial period, when Google+ has operated mostly as a stand-alone social networking site, consensus has been that, yes, its content sharing and privacy controls work well and as advertised.
However, Google has now started to integrate Google+ with other services, and it remains to be seen whether a critical mass of users will fully understand the interaction, cross-functionality and data sharing between Google+ and other Google services.
Google officials, from the CEO on down, are gung-ho about Google+ and it’s clear that the push to fuse Google+ with other company services will be extensive.
Google has redesigned the interface of the Google Account control panel, whose previous version clearly listed Google services available to users as part of the account, along with links to the services and some of their settings pages. The new control panel lacks that list of services.
Previously found at google.com/accounts, the control panel is now part of the Google+ site domain, another sign that Google+ is becoming the command centre for privacy controls and settings across Google services. The new control panel includes a link to the old control panel, but it’s not clear for how long the latter will be available.
The road to propagate Google+ across the Google product line is just starting, and the potential for a misstep at some point seems high, considering that at issue is the online identity of potentially hundreds of millions of people.
In some cases, shielding their real identity is of life-and-death importance for some people, such as spousal abuse victims and political dissidents in totalitarian regimes.
“If Google wants to be the broker in the relationship between pseudonyms and real names, there will be all sorts of ways that that could go wrong across their many services. If you’re a user in Syria depending on your pseudonymity in order to stay alive, that’s not a very comforting situation,” said Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, via e-mail.
In other words, now more than ever, Google must make sure that it fully complies its famous “do not be evil” philosophy.