Federation! (Goodbye, Google Plus)

The Internet’s biggest successes, however, have worked the other way round: first an open, federated protocol was developed, and then companies built their services on top of it. It will not be easy to move the billion users of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Google Plus to a new, federated environment — not easily. Some optimists think that sooner or later this notion that companies can override civil rights and set whatever policies they wish will be fully exposed and collapse on its own, but I’m not so sure. We’re talking about a market worth dozens of billions of dollars in ads, sold thanks to excellent profiling algorithms. Such a huge market will not go away easily. The ones in the market, if they feel “threatened” by a federated alternative, will soon launch counter-information about how insecure and untrustworthy those federated applications are. Whom will you believe — Page and Zuckerberg on a TV show explaining how their technologies are better and safer, or a group of anarchist geeks that warn people about the dangers of being tied forever to a single company that reams your data, profiles it, and sells it for a profit to third-party advertising companies? The latter are always labeled as “weirdo conspiracy-theory anti-capitalist anarchists” and usually ignored by the media and the overall population — even if they happen to be right. So I don’t think this will happen so soon.

The ‘nymwars have shown that even after almost two months of discussions, Google has not reverted their policies. In fact, according to Tateru Nino, they have even hardened them — now you’re not even able to appeal for Google’s decision to cancel your Google Plus account (and all that is implied with that). Unlike Facebook’s even stricter policy — use the name on your ID card, by sending a copy of it to Facebook, or be immediately deleted — Google’s policy is anything but clear and mostly depends on the Googler assigned to your case. At their whim, they might find your name “weird” and simply delete the account, no matter what your ID card says. This is rather dramatic if you’re unfortunate to have born in a non-English-speaking country, where all names will sound weird to an American anyway, or if your parents have blessed you with a strange name with unusual spelling. On the other hand, Google is happy to allow hackers and scammers to join Google Plus, so long as they register under “John Doe” or “Joe Smith”. The sheer injustice of this measure is appalling, to say the least, but, again, you can’t complain. Google can delete any account at their whim. You can’t even sue them — you forfeited that right when accepting the terms of service.

What this means is that if Google by any chance deletes your account, no matter how much time and money you have invested in it, you can’t complain, you can’t sue, and you can’t claim any compensation. This should be familiar to Second Life residents — Linden Lab has similar terms, and in the past, this has been heavily discussed as well in 2008:

In effect, Linden is able to enforce their own interpretation of the usage of their trademarks by banning all content they view as “threatening” to their claims on registered trademarks, no matter if it is displayed inside Linden’s virtual world or anywhere else on the world. Linden’s decision to ban avatars and remove content is unilateral and not appealable unless a user is willing to sue Linden in a court under the jurisdiction of the State of California.

(The text is mine, and so is the interpretation)

After a lot of discussion, however, Linden Lab was persuaded to be far less threatening than what their terms of service actually say. It was explained, usually in more private talks, that Linden Lab was just “protecting” themselves in legalese but had no intention to actually implement those threats. And, to the best of my knowledge, those clauses on their terms of service were never put in practice to randomly exclude residents, except in the most grave cases of abuse, where the abuser actually didn’t publicly protest much — they knew (and had been warned) what consequences they faced.

Not so with Google. Like Facebook, they really go ahead and delete the accounts. Opensource Obscure, a famous SL resident and evangelist (*/me waves to OO*), was simply banned from Google Plus for no reason whatsoever except that he had a funny name. This was such a dramatic example of how Google’s policies are completely insane that even the New York Times wrote an article about it, asking if Google really “understood” what “social media” means. Similar cases were reported for uncountable cases of other innocent users, and Google has a weird way of dealing with “celebrities” (starting with a definition of who is a celebrity and who is not): sometimes they get validated, sometimes an apology is issues, sometimes they will never get access back to Google Plus.

Well, to be honest, I’m not going to take any more risks. There is simply too much at stake here, and Google is toying with their customers. And I say “customers” because I’m a paying customer of a service that I use legitimately, and the least I expect from Google is that they protect my data and investment, which I have entrusted to them, without playing silly games.

You see, I’m fine with terms of service that pretty much force me to donate my DNA and sacrifice my offspring in burnt offerings in order to register. I have the option not to, if I’m not prepared to be humiliated by a company. No, what really bothers me as a customer is that I’m attracted to a service for some reason — it could be marketing, advertising, or actually finding something cool about the service — and join it under very reasonable terms: when I joined Google, there was no nonsense about deleting accounts, except, of course, if you’re doing something criminal (spamming, for example, is a criminal offense in many countries). Then I start investing time and money in using the service because I think it’s a good service. I’m happy to be a volunteer, a beta-tester, and an evangeliser for the service and the company. And then, all of the sudden, out of the sky, they force us to sign for new terms of service, and these, obviously, are the opposite of what you’ve originally signed for. At the whim of a corporate lawyer, you now face being banned for some stupid reason which was not on the original terms of service. And you cannot complain. You can only opt out of the service — basically throwing all your money and time out of the window.

In the 1990s, there was a word for this kind of practice: fraud.

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