Google is gagging user advocates
So, I’ve mentioned that while I was at Google (until July 15th) I disagreed strongly with the Google+ names policy. I wasn’t the only one, but of course those who still work for Google need to be careful not to criticise their employer, so they’re being fairly careful about what they say online.
Take Liz Fong, a friend of mine who is — among other things — a transgender and disability rights activist, and often tweets and posts about social justice issues. She’s also interested in BitCoin and online anonymity.
In comments on this post she stated that she works on G+ identity stuff in her 20% time:
Saul Tannenbaum – You were posting interesting things about names and gender, from a perspective that needed to be heard. And, you were dissenting from your employer’s policy on their own system and doing it with professionalism. From all that, I thought you were a voice worth my attention.
Liz Fong – Yup, I’m an Official Professional Dissident and Devil’s Advocate in my 20% time :) – even though I’m personally not happy with the decision, I’m glad that I’m being allowed to play devil’s advocate :)
When G+ launched, she regularly reshared articles about names and identity on the service. Of course she was very professional and tried to be neutral and balanced in what she posted, but she did post and reshare a lot on the subject. Here is a history of her relevant posts:
Jun 28: You’re safest using your full name
Jun 30: [Policy] may be helpful for people using pseudonyms to reread
Jul 6: Official word on business profiles (reshare)
Jul 7: Abbreviate your name for privacy
Jul 7: File feedback if you feel strongly about gender privacy
Jul 7: Yet another reminder about policy
Jul 8: Reshare of Siderea’s post about names (without comment)
Jul 8: Reshare of Geek Feminism pseudonymity bingo (without comment)
Jul 10: Reshare of link to Geek Feminism post about social networking and women (without comment)
Jul 11: Well, it looks like Google PR has officially commented
Jul 11: I’ve been going by Liz since I was 15 / link to Rowan Thunder’s story of G+ suspension
Jul 11: Michael Hermeston comments on Rowan Thunder’s case
Jul 12: Reshare of Rowan Thunder’s account of the appeal process
Jul 12: Surprised that I hadn’t seen this yet in my stream (links to posts from Second Lifers)
Jul 12: Google starts wrestling with identity issues on G+ (reshare without comment)
Jul 12: More press coverage on the identity issue
Jul 12: Link to “level-headed” article by Lauren Weinstein (with comment, not speaking for employer)
Jul 12: Yes, people at Google care
Jul 12: Link to Geek Feminism roundup, asking for a similar anti-pseudonymity resource
Jul 12: Petition seems like a tool for anti-pseudonymity griefers, please send feedback
Jul 12: A personal story: I’m alive today because I was able to pseudonymously network with other transgender people online
Jul 13: TLDR summary of author’s viewpoint: verifying ‘proof’ of identity is hard, forgery is easy.
Jul 13: Playing the other half of the coin for a moment (on dress codes)
Jul 14: When I speak, I speak only for myself and not for Google
Jul 16: No safe place (reshare without comment)
Jul 16: Potential pseudonym options, “very well-written and cogent”
Jul 16: Once again, Lauren is persuasive, levelheaded, and takes the big picture into account.
Jul 18: I’ve been noticing an increase in incivility in conversations about naming issues.
Jul 19: Here’s the official word on the SMS issue and on the abuse flagging issue.
Jul 19: If you want to chat about Google+ privacy, Jonathan’s your person :)
Jul 19: An insightful post on untangling psuedonymity and anonymity
Jul 19: Some uses cases for pseudonyms are addressed by abbreviating first or last name / competition is just a click away (not speaking for employer)
Jul 21: The pants theory of Google+ (reshare)
Jul 21: You can’t have a corporate profile
Jul 21: Use individual employees to represent your business
Jul 22: This is the appeals process for suspensions
Jul 22: Welcome back Kryptyk Fish and CZ Unit
Jul 23: Here’s what Skud has to say about her suspension
Jul 23: I’m interested in seeing data from users about how the naming policy is being applied
Jul 24: Google, the pseudonym banstick, etc; “+1 insightful”
Jul 24: Matt Cutts has responded publicly on the Thomas Monopoly issue (reshare)
Jul 24: I’m trying to enjoy a quiet weekend… better start reading from the firehose
Jul 24: Reshare of Sai’s post, “one of the most thorough examinations”
Jul 24: Signal-boosting Michael Hermeston’s comments
Jul 25: I’ve been trying to solicit discussion on how to tell pseuds from obscure nicknames
Jul 25: Reshare of Bradley Horowitz’s statement
So here we have a clear history of Liz posting frequently, seldom missing a day, and often posting multiple things about Google+ identity each day.
On July 25th (four days ago) she stopped posting on the subject altogether. Looking at her stream, though, I see that she did post, without any comment, a link to a Wikipedia article talking about gag orders.
Today I was bugging Googlers to try and get a response on my suspension (I tried to escalate my case yesterday, and didn’t hear anything for more than a day), so I reached out to Liz on Twitter, where we’ve been friends for some time.
It went like this:
@Skud: hey @lizthegrey since you care about identity and g+ can you prod them about my case/help me get a response? ticket #839791762
@Skud: @lizthegrey btw i forget, do you know @sparkymonster? if not you definitely should, she is made of awesome.
@lizthegrey: @Skud I know @sparkymonster but don’t think I’ve met her face to face yet (which reminds me, I should get an ‘I know Skud’ button from her)
@lizthegrey you definitely [should]! btw did you see my previous tweet? can you prod them to respond to me?
@lizthegrey: Annoyingly long/tiring week. I plan to keep twitter for short things, and use G+ for longer essays. I doubt 3000+ people care that I’m tired
@Skud: @lizthegrey *hugs* if you want ‘em… this must be rough for you :( i’m worried that you don’t seem to be responding to my qs about g+ tho
@Skud: @lizthegrey sorry to bug you but… you haven’t posted anything about identity lately, are you not allowed to any more?
@Skud: ok, unless someone tells me otherwise, it looks like google employees who don’t support the names policy have been gagged. #nymwars
@Skud: @lizthegrey this is your chance to tell me i’m wrong, btw.
@lizthegrey: CSA veggie fetching time, then one or two more code reviews, and then home, thank goodness. *thud*
So here we have a Googler who is working on identity stuff part-time as a “Devil’s Advocate” (I guess the users are the “devil” from Google’s perspective, ugh), who has repeatedly helped disseminate information about Google+ identity policy, and who has always taken a balanced view in her public posts, asking for anti-pseudonym resources or suggestions from the community, all while being very clear that she doesn’t speak for Google officially… silenced, and forced not to speak.
(Additional irony: Google are also saying that companies/brands should have their staff use Google+, to show a human face, and are now shutting down the very employees who are doing this for Google itself.)
To be clear, this is far worse than the prior restrictions Googlers had wrt confidentiality. Of course Googler’s can’t speak about forthcoming projects or other confidential matters, and they’d be silly to post anything too critical of the company if they wanted to keep their jobs. But now Google is preventing its staff from commenting at all on existing products/features/policies, or engaging with the user community in any way, even to quell FUD or share information. That’s scary.
I know Liz as an activist and I know it must be hard for her to be silenced in this way. Her tweets and G+ posts read, to me, like someone who’s exhausted and frustrated by the whole situation. I hope she gets the weekend of rest that she so badly needs.
Meanwhile, Google are refusing to respond in any way to the questions I asked their support staff, and eventually escalated by Cc’ing to Google+ management. To summarise, they were:
- What evidence will you accept that “Skud” is the name I commonly use, and in what way does this page fail to satisfy you?
- How would you suggest I edit my name on G+ to meet your standards, while still showing my commonly-used name on posts and comments?
- Since some users seem to get exemptions for special reasons, what is the process for getting such an exemption?
Google are choosing not to respond, and my account is still suspended. It’s Friday afternoon, and one week since my account was first blocked. What the hell is going on in there, and why are they so scared of saying anything?
To all my friends at Google, I’m thinking of you. Stay strong, look after yourselves and each other. And give my love to everyone at TGIF this afternoon!
ETA: A couple of Googlers have told me that this gag isn’t universal, so it looks like it might apply only to those advocating on behalf of G+ users. In which case, I think that’s even worse.
A protestor holding a sign saying "Where's Skud?" outside Google's Cambridge, MA offices. Image by Shava Nerad under CC-BY 3.0