Open Letter to Google’s Larry Page

Video courtesy of Botgirl Questi

Dear Larry,

I don’t remember your handle in the days you were an active participant of the USENET, over a decade ago, when “web crawlers” and “search engines” were interesting mathematical problems to be tackled. To be honest, I don’t even remember my own handle those days. But what I remember very clearly is RFC 1855. Those days, we all abided by the Netiquette — or faced banning — and one of the rules, which everybody accepted, was 4.1.2, which states on its last paragraphs:

– Don’t badger other users for personal information such as sex, age, or location. After you have built an acquaintance with another user, these questions may be more appropriate, but many people hesitate to give this information to people with whom they are not familiar.

– If a user is using a nickname alias or pseudonym, respect that user’s desire for anonymity. Even if you and that person are close friends, it is more courteous to use his nickname. Do not use that person’s real name online without permission.

Privacy mattered in those days, even considering that the ‘net was such a small place (only 10 million web pages by the time you launched your first Google prototype! How many are stored on your servers’ memory these days? In 2008 or 2009, I believe it was over 6 billion pages). But there was a whole atitude that was part of being a netizen — a citizen of the Internet. And you and Sergey embodied that atitude quite well on the “Ten things we know to be true” philosophy for Google: namely, 1. Focus on the user and all else will follow and, more importantly, 6. You can make money without doing evil. The do-no-evil policy has been pretty much the trademark of Google over the time, and is still what makes Google and Google’s products and services unique: to the best of my knowledge, no other company has stated that so clearly and stuck to it for so many years as a fundamental principle in their business relationships.

Scarp Godenot in giant Yoa Ogee mechanical skeleton dinosaur avatar

I haven’t registered with Google for an account since the very early days, where pretty much the only significant service was Gmail; nevertheless, since the earliest “beta” search engine was released by you guys, I never felt the urge to use any other search engine. I’ve signed up with Gmail in September 2005 or so, not really because I needed the service (I run several servers and have plenty of mailboxes in them), but because even though Google was already a giant back then, I still felt that supporting your efforts would be great. Since then, you have added so many products and services that I cannot claim to have used all of them, but certainly a large part of them; and in my professional activity as an IT consultant, I actively recommend clients to switch over to Google — like dozens of millions of other IT professionals.

As an eager Second Life resident (user), when launching my own Second Life-related services and products, I found the amazing ability to precisely target Google AdSense ads to my intended audience very valuable. In the early days of Second Life, there were few websites with information and news about Second Life, so I attracted some traffic — enough for Google Ads to finance not only my website’s annual lease, but the costs of maintaining a Premium account with Linden Lab, Second Life’s creators. What was very important for me was the ability to show Second Life-related ads on all the sites I run, and, conversely, to make sure that my own ads would appear on other Second Life-related sites. Your service allowed that very easily, because Google users who happened to be Second Life users were so easily identified: their Google Profiles would tell the whole story. Now, Second Life users are a 20-million-user market. Small, yes, when seen at a global scale; but not that small. My own country, Portugal, has just half that amount of inhabitants (and not everyone is — yet — connected to the Internet). In fact, only 50 countries in the world have more than 20 million inhabitants, and that never prevented you to make business with countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, or Ireland, just to name a few. The vast majority of those Second Life users — certainly not all, of course, but a huge proportion — have Gmail addresses, and thus Google Accounts as well.

When you launched Lively, it was quite interesting to see that the majority of early users were all Second Life users. When you launched Wave and now Google Plus, I wasn’t surprised any longer with the sheer amount of Second Life users who immediately joined the service: Second Life users, in general, are always eager early adopters. And my, are they vocal! Allegedly, Plurk only remains in activity because it’s one social network favoured by Second Life users, which use it all the time. Since Second Life is effectively the only remaining three-dimensional social virtual world in existence (a statement that might be contested by some, but I will still stick to that claim), no wonder that its users are eminently social. And they use the Internet a lot: so much that Treet.TV, a streaming video network which provides video content around the clock only for Second Life users, claims to have as many or more viewers than several channel networks. Borrowing the words of Linden Lab’s CEO, Rod Humble, there is a whole ecosystem out there which is spun around Second Life. Second Life is merely the pretext, not the main reason for people to get together, meet, and exchange information — publicly. And that information gets shared throughout the world using all sorts of technologies — even in the academic world, since Second Life is a very active area of research.

One of my personal areas of interest is integration. It was with great eagerness that I managed to integrate Google’s translation services with some Second Life objects (these days, the Second Life viewer, as well as most derivative viewers, all include Google translation for in-world chat). And Linden Lab dropped their own internal search engine and opted to buy a Google Search Appliance instead. So there is definitely a lot going on between Google, Second Life, and Linden Lab; many, including myself, even joked about a possible acquisition of Linden Lab by Google. Mostly because of Google’s “do no evil” stance, the majority of Second Life users actually would look at that possibility in a very favourable light — even if it meant that all advertising in Second Life would be taken over by Google Ads. But that, in itself, is generally not seen as being so bad.

This was the scenario when Google Plus launched: a community of roughly 20 million potential users who were quite eager to see Google “take over” the market dominance of web-based social networking currently held by Facebook. And why the eagerness? Very simple. Because, unlike Facebook, Google has always stuck to the old ideal that privacy is important, as opposed to Zuckerberg’s Privacy is Dead mantra. And in this era where people publish too much about their personal information and share way too much — mostly because of a certain innocence of not recognising the inherent danger — Zuckerberg’s statements are subversive and shatter the foundations of our democratic societies.

The right to privacy is not merely an utopic ideal. It’s embodied on the United Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 17), which are signed by pretty much every country of the world, even a few that aren’t democratic. The important thing to remember is that the right to control one’s own privacy is an unalienable right — not only in the US, but in most countries of the world. You might argue that people only volunteer the information they wish when using Google’s services. That’s true. But allegedly you’re now demanding that people only use the name “that one commonly goes by in daily life“. That is a little better than what Facebook demands — nothing less than a valid ID card to subscribe to their service — but it’s way too vague. Who defines the name “that one commonly goes by in daily life”? Under the many international treaties regulating privacy and human rights, there is only one person that has the right to define that: the person itself.

CC BY 4.0 Open Letter to Google’s Larry Page by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Sitearm

    @Gwenneth; Yes, exactly. My favorite example is “Who was Marion Morrison, and why was he or she so famous?”

    Site

  • Sitearm

    @Gwenneth; Yes, exactly. My favorite example is “Who was Marion Morrison, and why was he or she so famous?”

    Site

  • Oh my. I had to google for that one. Of course I remember who Samuel Clemens was, but Marion Morrison was completely out of my radar — and the irony is that I used to watch all his movies 🙂

    Great example,[email protected]:disqus !

  • Wizard Gynoid

    write on chickah.

  • I guess that this will not be restricted to Google Plus, but may be expanded to all of Google’s services, starting with YouTube next: http://forums.theregister.co.uk/forum/1/2011/07/14/google_profiles_youtube_verification_id/

    Gosh, just replacing the gazillion accounts I have with Google will be an utter nightmare. Not to mention bye-bye ad revenue, Google Analytics, and so forth… anyone can suggest good replacements for all those services?

  • Eric Blair would have been a suitable example for this article. RFC 1855 is an excellent example because that’s how we as humans naturally nurture relationships, it’s how our parents encouraged us as kids to develop relationships with warnings about talking to strangers.

    I don’t really follow google’s logic of saying that using real names helps people you know how to find you, because if you know people, then they will know how to find you. I mean this is how we’ve done it prior to the rise of social networks, people didn’t have to try and randomly guess your email address, you provided it to them, the same with ICQ numbers, PowWow, MSN yadda yadda yadda, people whom you knew found you, because they know you already!

    When the guys at work were arranging to play World of Warcraft together, we provided each other with the names of our characters and the realms we played on, this was before Real ID arrived on the scene to make it easier but even in the case of Real ID, we gave each other our email address so we could contact each other and we can do this because we truly know each other, we could happily use aliases for these purposes. When Blizzard wanted to introduce using your Full name on their forums there was a backlash because people like to be in control of whom they share such information with where possible and people felt like they were losing control of that (The technical forums would have had the same requirement).

    Google, like Facebook, are of course entitled to go down this route should they choose, but please spare us the BS about finding people or integrity, pseudonyms build their own brand that people are familiar with and as you point out, adverts should be targetted at interests, not in knowing someone’s real name.

  • Curious how they reversed their policies in merely 5 months: http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2011/02/freedom-to-be-who-you-want-to-be.html

    I thank the pseudonymous “Mr. G” who posted that link on a Google forum discussing privacy, or rather, the end of privacy at Google.

  • Circe Carnell

    Well written, pertinent and comprehensive, thanks Gwyn. I too have been “stalked” merely by a contact I made online, trusted and naively revealed personal information to. Very quickly the feeling of uneasiness escalates to panic, especially when one has young children. IMO a faker is a faker, regardless of what they choose to call themselves and a democratic society allows the community itself to determine who is sufficiently authentic to participate. It demeans us to suggest we need this to be decreed by the powers that be. I am also interested by what I see as the relevance here of the idea of personal branding as expounded here: http://www.personalbrandingnow.com/296/how-to-create-a-personal-brand-online-identity/. I believe that there is, for example real equity in the Gwyneth Llewelyn “brand”. Neither Google nor anyone else should be able to decide that is worthless. I may be naive, but I feel sure that the current situation has provided a healthy catalyst to progress this debate in a positive direction. I sure hope so.

  • Talking about privacy…trying to “share” this..why does it want access to every aspect of my FB or Twitter account?…ah well…anyway, well written and thought provoking. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but all you need here to trace someone is their real name, and a rough location…from that you can get everything about their address, most FB users have their name a the location of the city they live in.

  • re the video: actually google DOES believe in AI:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/google-boss-wants-to-create-artificial-intelligence-479361.html
    that’s why this is even scarier

  • Vaneeesa Blaylock

    Remarkable post Gwyneth. Thorough to put it mildly. Excellent context harkening back to your usenet days. This is all such sad and depressing news. When Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard, all the people we used to love and trust, cut wikileaks off, that was probably worse than this from a culture perspective. But this rejection of our humanity is just so personal. But its also forced me to consider what really matters. It’s not Facebook. I can’t say about Google+ since I’m too afraid to probably ever try it. But I’ve realized I waste too much time on too many services. By telling me that I’m a sub-human, Google has interestingly helped me to focus on what matters. I’m going to focus on 3 platforms: WordPress, Twitter, Second Life, and dump the rest.

  • … add Plurk to your list, Vaneeesa 🙂 Beyond Twitter, it seems the platform with the most SL users there. It has much more of a feeling of a chat group than a “social networking thingy”.

    And, of course, do try LL’s own attempt to “go social”: http://my-demo.secondlife.com/ Limited? Oh yes, very limited. But at least you use your own SL account 🙂

  • Oh my! Now I should be afraid!!!

  • @Gwyneth; I’ve been thinking a bit on what Google+ is really aiming at and I think it’s aiming at being a paid Google service for enterprises with, say, about 100 people or more. That is, it is aimed at organizations that are large enough to need a private “intranetworking” tool, but not large enough to afford an in-house or premium data center service.
     
    What Google+ is NOT is a public service like Google Search or Google Mail.

    I recently joined a project that used a Paid Google Mail Service for a custom mail url, and that was my first exposure to “the private side of Google.” Lord knows the company makes plenty of ad revenue from large-scale use of its public services, that are “cost-free but not ad-free”. And they make additional revenue from private versions of Search and Mail.

    So I think the company got itself into trouble by implying that Google+ would be another cost-but-not-ad-free public service, especially because they used the big buzz method of going after independent early adopters to sign up for it, just like they did for Google Mail. THEN we found out about the forced-use-of-private-information to use the service and not be banned.

    I would call what happened intentional “Bait and Switch” if I thought they did it on purpose. The alternative is that they didn’t think it through enough, ahead of time, about what they were doing, who they were aiming at, and how it would be received.

    After all, enterprise users are NOT going to sign up for Google+ for organization use unless their organizations have adopted it. So why was it ever made public to independent users?

    Cheers! 🙂
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  • @Gwyneth; I’ve been thinking a bit on what Google+ is really aiming at and I think it’s aiming at being a paid Google service for enterprises with, say, about 100 people or more. That is, it is aimed at organizations that are large enough to need a private “intranetworking” tool, but not large enough to afford an in-house or premium data center service.
     
    What Google+ is NOT is a public service like Google Search or Google Mail.

    I recently joined a project that used a Paid Google Mail Service for a custom mail url, and that was my first exposure to “the private side of Google.” Lord knows the company makes plenty of ad revenue from large-scale use of its public services, that are “cost-free but not ad-free”. And they make additional revenue from private versions of Search and Mail.

    So I think the company got itself into trouble by implying that Google+ would be another cost-but-not-ad-free public service, especially because they used the big buzz method of going after independent early adopters to sign up for it, just like they did for Google Mail. THEN we found out about the forced-use-of-private-information to use the service and not be banned.

    I would call what happened intentional “Bait and Switch” if I thought they did it on purpose. The alternative is that they didn’t think it through enough, ahead of time, about what they were doing, who they were aiming at, and how it would be received.

    After all, enterprise users are NOT going to sign up for Google+ for organization use unless their organizations have adopted it. So why was it ever made public to independent users?

    Cheers! 🙂
    Site

  • @Sitearm:twitter, what a wonderful insight… you might very well be right. So they will be sort of a “private LinkedIn” in the sense of a social network targeted to professionals inside an organisation — or employees inside a corporation. Similar to Google Apps for Business.
    That would certainly make sense and it’s a niche market that is little explored. Organisations/Corporations need either to develop it on their own, or use some ready-made open source solution (e.g. BuddyPress, Pligg, or even Ning). Having a brand name like Google behind such a service would certainly be a huge incentive!

  • Moribund Cadaver

    If Google+ had any intention of being an enterprise-like service, it makes even less sense to begin threading it through existing Google services and that includes profiles.

    G+’s rollout has already unpredictably affected formerly disconnected services and redefined profiles mid-stream, after an existing public userbase had accepted the “don’t be evil” promise.

    As it is right now, a lot of people have been stung by this – their usage of Google reader, Picasa, and even basic search affected by their G+ profile and account. And if those users are suspended, other services (those mentioned) can be directly impaired. This was a wreckless, messy thing for Google to do. It effectively dropped a bomb onto Google services as a whole for a increasingly noticeable segment of their pre-existing userbase.

  • You may be right,[email protected]:disqus — just yesterday, a journalist friend of mine (who is an eager Facebook fan — nay, she’s a fanatic, not merely a “fan” — who also joined Google+ to see what it was about was shocked to see that I had “discovered” some videos and images of one of her birthday parties via Google+. They weren’t exactly public (but not set to private either) and were on one of her not-so-public Picasa albums. When I added a comment to it, she got notice of them… via Buzz. She had a) no idea those images were on a Picasa album; b) no idea the images were public; c) no idea that the images could be “found” via Google+; and d) no idea that commenting on a Picasa album was coupled with Buzz!

    So, yes, subreptitiously Google is linking all their services in not-so-obvious ways, and “forgetting” to implement the required privacy settings as they do so. This does not bode well.

  • Well, I’m gone now. I’ve decided that the risks are too high, and Google is completely ignoring the massive amount of articles demanding a reversal of their policies. So I’m not staying around and risk losing everything. Too much of my business is tied to my Google account.

  • Two sides to Google’s crypto-fascist coin: business and government. In typical revolving-door style. To paraphrase Benito Mussolini, fascism may more accurately be called corporatism, for it is the merger of corporations with the State. What corporations cannot do, the State may be made to do. What the State cannot do, corporations may be made to do.

    The corporate-State doesn’t want anyone hiding behind pseudonyms, unless they do so as agents of the corporate-State.

  • Two sides to Google’s crypto-fascist coin: business and government. In typical revolving-door style. To paraphrase Benito Mussolini, fascism may more accurately be called corporatism, for it is the merger of corporations with the State. What corporations cannot do, the State may be made to do. What the State cannot do, corporations may be made to do.

    The corporate-State doesn’t want anyone hiding behind pseudonyms, unless they do so as agents of the corporate-State.

  • Scary thought: comparing data profiling companies with crypto-fascism. And that from the “company that does no evil”. What should we expect from similar companies (e.g. Facebook…) who don’t even claim that…?

    No wonder that ultimately the ‘Nymwars will be lost by everyone still concerned with pseudonimity…