The evanescence of pseudonymous online identity

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2011

Charlie Stross:

Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It’s nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it’s to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they’re pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it’s not a real identity to them: it’s a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won’t magically induce civility: the trolls don’t care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.

That’s a brief aside from a longer post in which Charlie joins the (largely unopposed) chorus of people trying to make Google aware of just how dickish they’re being with this whole pseudonyms business*; worth reading for the borrowed list of programmer assumptions about human names alone, though it’s all good stuff.

[ * For my part, I’m more astonished by the Big G’s uncharacteristic tone-deafness on the issue than by the issue itself (which is simply a hallmark of contemporary concerns about identity in the network age); they’ve responded faster and better to much smaller outcryings in the past, which lends a certain weight to the suggestions that this is a push to monetise enforced canonical identity… a push that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”; after all, if that really is the plan, they must have known there’d be a push-back against it, and that resistance would only increase with time. But again, it seems very out of line with the usual corporate character on display from Mountain View… so, if it’s the mask slipping, why is it slipping now? ]


Anatomy of a socnet background check

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2011

Over at Gizmodo, they’ve taken the social network “background check” service offered by a company called Social Intelligence for a spin. The results are interesting:

In May, the FTC gave a company called Social Intelligence the green light to run background checks of your Internet and social media history. The media made a big hulabaloo out of the ruling. And it largely got two important facts wrong.

Contrary to initial reports, Social Intelligence doesn’t store seven years worth of your social data. Rather it looks at up to seven years of your history, and stores nothing.

The second was the idea that it was looking for boozy or embarrassing photos of you to pass along to your employer. In fact it screens for just a handful of things: aggressive or violent acts or assertions, unlawful activity, discriminatory activity (for example, making racist statements), and sexually explicit activity. And it doesn’t pass on identifiable photos of you at all. In other words, your drunken kegstand photos are probably fine as long as you’re not wearing a T-shirt with a swastika or naked from the waist down.

Basically, it just wants to know if you’re the kind of asshole who will cause legal hassles for an employer.

[…]

… we learned a few things about how it works, and what you can do if you’ve got to have one of these reports run. And you will.

For starters, what it doesn’t include in the report is nearly as interesting as what it does. Every image of me that might be able to identify my ethnicity is blacked out, even my hands. On my homepage, a line that reads “I drink too much beer” has been obscured because it’s ultimately irrelevant. Screw you, boss man. I love my beer. (Joe: please do not fire me.)

And then there’s the stuff it didn’t find. For example, our editor in chief, Joe Brown, has a Facebook account under a different name he uses for close friends who do not want to be subjected to his work-related posts. (And, you know, to avoid annoying publicists who try to friend him.) It’s easily findable if you know his personal email address. We gave that address to Social Intelligence, but it didn’t dig up his aliased account, just his main profile.

It also seems like it helps to have a large Web footprint. Yeah, it found some negative hits. Tip of the iceberg, my man!

There was much more to find buried deep in my Google search results that could have been just as incriminating. Sometimes, on even more than one level.

Plenty more detail in that piece, but to cut a long story short, it’ll be eminently possible to live a fun fulfilling life online and not flunk one of these background checks… although, counterintuitively perhaps, it appears that broadcasting more of your life rather than less of it is one way to help yourself.

But note that SI’s offer is essentially an outsource offer, and – deliberately, thanks to the constrains of certain laws – much more limited than a few hours of Googling an employee by name. A big firm could easily have a dedicated HR drone whose job it was to rake over the pasts of potential applicants for nasty nuggets. Hell, keep their paygrade low enough, and there’ll be plenty of axe-grinding motivation for them to dish the dirt on high-level managerial applicants; few things motivate in a shitty job as powerfully as resentment, after all. Though don’t treat ’em too bad… you wouldn’t want them agitating your own layers of silt, now would you?

(Businesses: if this sounds like a good plan to you, don’t delay, start hiring now! After all, the job market – at least here in the UK – is about to be flooded with people who’ve made a living by digging up the mundane failures and foibles of people’s private lives and exposing them to public scrutiny, so hire now while they’re still cheap! You may even find that a bit of your own research will enable you to apply the very same sort of leverage upon them, too.)

On this side of the pond, meanwhile, the European parliament is trying to enshrine an Eric Shmidt-esque “right to be forgotten” into law. Tessa Mayes remains unimpressed:

we shouldn’t champion a right to be forgotten. Why? For one, it could be used to stifle our culture’s imagination by banning freedom of expression. It could encourage public figures to claim a “right to erase what people say about my sex life”, as some have been trying to do using superinjunctions, and as Max Mosley, whose orgy was exposed in the News of the World, failed to do in the European Court of Human Rights. But that isn’t my main reason. An exemption could be made so it refers only to data processing rather than when your data is talked about.

Neither am I arguing from a technical point of view: that there’s no point in trying to be forgotten online because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve (although technical challenges don’t help).

Instead my argument is political, about the conception of individuals’ power in our society. The right to be forgotten conjures up the idea of a passive, isolated individual, outside of society. This is a figment of an imagination that believes individuals should exist in the shadows and bureaucrats should act as our puppet masters.

By contrast, at the heart of a right to privacy is the conception of us all as engaged citizens. As social beings we interact in public life. However, sometimes we need downtime from it. A right to privacy recognises that a social existence demands a public and a private life, both of which we control.

A remarkably apropos and proleptic piece of writing, considering the events of the last few days here in the UK; I suspect privacy will be a hot topic here for a good few weeks to come, too. But before we sign off on this one, let’s make a call-back to Bill Gibson’s thoughts from last year on making your past unGooglable:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

We adapt. And better still, we don’t even notice ourselves adapting… possibly because we’re too busy panicking about the idea of having to adapt.

[ Cue resurrection of OMG GOOGLE IZ TOO BIG KILL IT WIV FIRE! riff in 5… 4… 3… ]


Fear of a Google planet

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2011

“It’s the season of cyber-panic,” says The Guardian‘s John Harris, and then proceeds to add some more cyber-panic to the mix. After all, we’re well overdue for a reboot of the “Google is a dangerous monopoly” meme, aren’t we?

We seem to accept it as something as inarguable as the weather, but Google now has a terrifying dominance of the world’s internet use. In Europe, it controls around 90% of the online search market.

I’m not going to dispute the figures, but it’s not like there aren’t dozens of other search engines people could use. Even if you put forward ignorance of alternatives and userbase inertia as components of that dominance, I’m still failing to see how Google is the bad guy here.

As is Google’s apparent appetite for any technology business it can get its hands on: in the first 10 months of 2010 alone, it spent $1.6bn on new acquisitions. If you have ever raged against the stranglehold practised by Rupert Murdoch, bear one thing in mind: Google’s power now threatens to make him look like a village newsagent.

On the contrary; Google is more like a newsagent than Murdoch, because it’s primarily in the business of locating and supplying media and providing platforms for people to create their own; Murdoch is a top-down content creator and peddler of dubious ideological flim-flam. Or, to put it another way: Google owns pipelines, Murdoch sells sewage.

Google has a shot not at control of the means to access information, but the information itself. Potentially all information, which is something worth panicking about.

Google has no “shot at controlling all information” whatsoever. If it starts censoring or massaging its results – which would get spotted pretty quickly, thanks to legions of competitors looking for a handful of mud to sling – Josephine Average can simply use an alternative search engine, blogging platform, online video hosting service, whatever. Google is not a telco; it has no way of controlling what comes into your house via that bit of optical fibre unless you choose to use it as a gateway. Mister Harris’ concern should perhaps be directed toward the telcos themselves, whose resistance to net neutrality is far more suspect and manipulative than Google’s dominant market share in search.

In one of those turnabouts that defy satire, Microsoft is pursuing Google via the European commission, claiming that it unfairly promotes its own services via web searches.

Y’know what? When I look at the BT website, they don’t tell me about the offerings from other telcos. When I look at Microsoft’s website, I don’t see a message saying “or, of course, you could always get a Mac”. When I go to Burger King, there are no ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Microsoft’s lawsuit is petulant tit-for-tat obstructionism, nothing more.

In Texas, antitrust investigations by the attorney general’s office are ongoing, triggered by websites’ complaints about their lowly Google rankings.

Google makes it very clear how to make your site rank well, and what actions will count against you. Their algos aren’t perfect, of course… but they fix them regularly and are fairly transparent about how and why they do so. If you don’t like Google’s rules, don’t optimise for their search engine. Google doesn’t owe your business a living.

Yesterday, Bloomberg ran a story with the headline “Google Antitrust Probe by US Could Take Years”, and paraphrased a renowned technology lawyer: “The agency is likely to examine whether Google is using its position in internet search to subdue rivals in adjacent markets with threats and jacked-up advertising rates.” It would certainly be a start.

Sounds more like a fishing expedition than an effort to fix a clear and observable problem to me… one that will tie up the company’s resources and energies in proving its innocence. Given the source of said lawsuit – oh, look, Microsoft again! – it’s not exactly hard to assume that someone is more interested in throwing caltrops into Google’s path than working out ways of competing in the marketplace in which Google dominates. Shorter version: if you can’t beat ’em, use the legal system to slow ’em down while you try to get a jump on ’em.

In the meantime, some advice, not least for employees of the US government. Don’t feed the tiger. Think back to the frontier days of dial-up, when pluralism reigned. Have a look around for alternative email providers, search engines and video-sharing sites.

This is pretty much the only sensible paragraph in the whole damned piece: the US government is indeed extremely unwise to rely on outsourced services if secrecy is of great importance (though they’re not exactly great at internal security when they do keep things local, either), and – if you really do fear Google’s dominance – you should put your money where your mouth is and use someone else’s services.

Cue accusations of Google fanboyism in 5… 4… 3… Look, I don’t care for Google any more than I care for any other company that provides me with useful services, I fully understand that they’re a profit-orientated business and that “don’t be evil” is very open to intrpretation as a coprporate slogan, and I’m happy to rag on them when their stuff doesn’t work (which is why I’m an unstinting Blogger hater, f’rinstance). Show me evidence that Google are spiking the competition’s wheels, and I’ll gladly hear your case. But if all you can do is bitch about the fact that 90% of people think they deliver the best results and use them as a result, I’m going to file you under “probable axe to grind”, or possibly “journalist in search of nebulous bogey-man”.


Interactive fractal maps

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2011

Perhaps bored with mapping real places, Google turns to the mathematical landscapes of fractal equations with JuliaMaps – all the fun of generative fractals without any of the need for downloading software (sorry, Rudy Rucker). So if you feel the need for a short dose of visual psychedelia during your lunchbreak, you’re all sorted. Turn out the lights, will you?

EDIT: I’ve not tried it with the Big G’s own Chrome, but Firefox and Opera are both really struggling to handle JuliaMaps right now – it works, but it’s mad slow. Rucker’s software might be a better bet after all! 🙂


Spectaclegate: should Google police bad businesses?

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Nothing grabs attention and raises ire like a story of shameless bad business practices, which explains the popularity of this New York Times piece on a charmless chap by the (delightfully meme-ready) name of Vitaly Borker. To boil it down, Russo actively cultivates a negative image for his online eyeglasses sales business because all the incoming links from complaints by disgruntled customers boost his site’s search rankings.

Stories that give people a reason to have a pop at Google and its perceived monopoly are also popular, and the saga of Borker has plenty of people thumping pulpits and claiming that the Big G should be managing its search algorithms to prevent scumbags like Borker from profiting from malpractice. The thing is, if Google were to do that, they’d actually be strengthening the perceived monopoly that these people like to complain about in the first place. Jeff Jarvis lays it down:

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

[…]

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle mirroring of the Cablegate issues here: information itself doesn’t make us free, but it enables us to take responsibility for our own freedoms. Google’s algorithms likewise provide a powerful tool for anyone fortunate enough to have access to an internet connection; as tempting as it may be, we can’t blame them for our own failure to use it to the fullest. Caveat emptor, indeed.


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