Open Letter to Google’s Larry Page

This seems to have been completely overlooked in some cases where Google Profiles have been deleted because Google has assumed the right to “decide” how people should be called. This is a very worrying breach of privacy: privacy can be defined in the following way:

“Privacy is an individual’s right to determine what information they would like others to know about themselves; which people are permitted to know that information; and the ability to determine when those people can access that information”.

(emphasis mine; the quote is from Elias Bizannes)

It’s not Google, nor even a government, who has the “right” to decide how private we should keep our data. It’s up to us. Technology is just a means to implement privacy policies, but, ultimately, it’s up to the service to provide the adequate tools to support privacy requirements. In some countries (certainly in my own!), legislation strictly controls what kind of information companies can or cannot publish of their users; as a rule of thumb, they cannot publish anything that the users don’t allow them to publish, and, conversely, they cannot force users to publish information about themselves that they don’t want to see in public. Other jurisdictions may have different rules.

In particular, if someone does not want their names to be public, but prefer to go under a pseudonym, nobody — not even the government — can “force” them to do it otherwise. If Samuel Clemens registered to Google Plus today, would Google censor his profile if he used his pseudonym Mark Twain? Let’s face it — how many people know that both are the same person? A quick search on Google shows 828.000 results for “Samuel Clemens” and over 35 million for “Mark Twain”. The name I have on my ID card gets a meagre 2000 results, most of which are not related to me at all; “Gwyneth Llewelyn” achieves around 33.000 results (a number which has remained pretty constant over the last 7 years). So what is “the name that I commonly go by in daily life”? Why should Google be the one defining it, when Google’s services barely recognise the name I have on my ID card?

You might argue that what matters is what advertisers will pay for the data mined about myself. Well, I shall refer to the opening words of this open letter: I want advertisers to look me up as Gwyneth Llewelyn, and, conversely, as an advertiser, I want to target other Second Life users who use their pseudonyms “commonly in daily life”. As I’m fond of mentioning, I have a credit card in the name of Gwyneth Llewelyn. I shop in eBay using PayPal under my pseudonym. I advertise with Google and have joined the Google Affiliate Network using that name; I sold an article to the British newspaper the Guardian under my pseudonym and get interviews in some media, including TV, under my pseudonym as well; and I have some academic research articles to be published under my pseudonym. Speaking of which, my pseudonym is not only registered with the local Writer’s Association, but it’s also a registered trademark in my country as well; like most artists, it has some recognised value, and so I’m careful to protect it as best as I can afford to. And of course I subscribe to pretty much everything online with my pseudonym — I don’t trust any of those sites with my real name, as a matter of principle. Still, that never stopped me to shop online with them, and it also never stopped the post office to deliver the mail in the name of Gwyneth Llewelyn: all these shops don’t care how I call myself, so long as my card has credit and I remain a faithful customer.

So when advertisers get your profiling data about my pseudonym, what do they get? They know about my tastes. They know what I shop for — either on eBay or on several other fashion sites where I shop. They know my location, my age and birthdate. They know what I write about and what my tastes are. They know about my circle of friends and what excites us. They know my political, social, philosophical, and economical views. In fact, Google knows even more than that: you know where I live, how much I spend and receive from ads, and I believe that you even know the name on my ID card. I’m fine with all that, because I trust your privacy policy. This information is, according to your policy, never revealed (except to governments and courts of law, of course) unless I tell you otherwise. This is how it should be.

It is thus unconceivable that you are now attempting to limit the way we use our Google Profiles and are not allowed to use “the name that we commonly go by in daily life”, but some other name, which Google employees deem to be the “right” one. The right one for whom? All the people advertising on my sites; all those merchants with whom I do my regular online shopping; my friends, contacts, acquaintances and business contacts just know me by my pseudonym. Sure, a few might have a vague idea that I also have an ID card showing a different name. But why should they care? All they want to know is what Gwyneth Llewelyn is buying or selling, what Gwyneth Llewelyn is writing about, who she works with, with whom she talks and interacts, what she likes, what she does… that’s the kind of data they are interested in, and that’s why they pay to advertise on my sites. If they can’t even find me on Google’s services, how shall they know that they’re actually doing business with Gwyneth Llewelyn and not someone else?

You see, your “logic” is twisted the wrong way round. The concept of “the name that we commonly go by in daily life”, in the sense of the kind of information that your advertisers and buyers of profiling data are eager to get, is the name that we effectively go by in daily life, not the one that Google employees think we go by. In case of any doubt, they should at least validate how “common” that name actually is, in the sense of what Google’s search engine knows about that name. It’s a metric like any other, but certainly a much better metric than “it’s what we think that your most common name is”.

Let me quote again from Hamlet Au’s article. This was a statement by Google’s Katie Watson:

Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world. By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know — friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances — in finding and creating a connection with the the right person online.

I don’t want to go deep into philosophy and discuss what is “real” and what is not; business and philosophy don’t mix well! So I’ll focus on the second sentence instead: by using any other name but the name my friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances know me, how are those people supposed to find and create connections with the right person — i.e., me? You might argue that I could provide both the name on my ID card as well as an extra “nickname” where I could write “the name I commonly go by in daily life”. Sure, but that would require me to expose an aspect of my identity that I’m not comfortable in sharing.

And why?

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