Sunday Musings: Google’s Identity Struggles, Plus Social Media Bans Around the World

The Web’s missing features for built-in user identity have become a real headache for the industry, and for its users too. It certainly took its toll on market leader Google this week as its “Identity Theater” continued (Source: Kevin Marks.) The issue? It’s turning out that making every single user comply with the Common Names policy isn’t workable for a variety of reasons. Reports of Google deleting accounts en masse are driving a lot of the discussion. Robert Scoble has his own recommendations for Google and while they’re probably the least that would be acceptable to the majority of people, it doesn’t go far enough I think.

It certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Twitter allows companies, bots, and just about every other type of social account and it works quite well in the end. Twitter ran into a similar identity issue in a big way a couple of years back after facing lawsuits and widespread complaints. They managed to muddle through with Verified Accounts.

A growing consensus is that Google should allow user-defined accounts as well, with verified identity for those that want or need it. Personally, I’m not sure I see Google coming around with a response fast enough to prevent some damage to services and impacting Google Plus‘s runaway adoption. But in my analysis, it’s most likely to only hurt the commercialization of the service, not regular usage for most for now.

Social Identity Ownership - Google or Facebook?

Worse, the problem may actually be core to the way Google’s stack is conceived and architected. It may not be easy for them to change course in the short-term without ripples through the way global Google’s services fundamentally operate from a security and identity perspective. It also may not be good for their business model which is almost certainly based on the fact they know who people really are. This issue is one to watch given Google’s pervasiveness. It also has some significant implications for business users of its products, especially now that they seem to be gaining some much needed traction in the social networking wars.

For now, I’d recommend that businesses use Google Plus with an eye towards experimentation while the Web giant gets its philosophy and policies around identity sorted out. Frankly, the bigger industry issue is social Web identity itself. Users and companies increasingly depend on commercial providers like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to provide everything identity-related, from login access to storage and maintenance of their social graph. This is causing key elements of power and control to start to swing away from the open standards that made the Web so successful and essentially fair.

Will the W3C step in and resolve what’s appearing to be an increasingly glaring absence in the Web stack? So far it seems unlikely given the failure of many years of open standard Web identity efforts. The culprit? You have only to look in the mirror. Apathy by users and lack of consensus on the part of Web developers. There’s also a lot at stake financially for those that end up owning a big chunk of Web identity. Consequently, online — and especially social — identity is likely to grow into a full blown brouhaha in the next couple of years as issues, missteps, and abuses inevitably surface. However, we could also decide to put our own house in order before governments step in, the least desirable of all outcomes in most imaginable scenarios. The worst probably being governments owning, issuing, and centrally managing verified Web identity credentials for everyone.

Which brings us to the next subject…

Government Bans Chipping Away At Social Media Freedoms?

A couple of interesting things happened this week with governments aiming their considerable might at social media. While knee-jerk responses to this space were common enough a few years ago, with the U.S. Marines banning social media access for a while for example, these are now generally understood to be counterproductive and unworkable for a long list of reasons.

However, that didn’t stop the German government from banning the Facebook ‘Like’ button on Friday, sure to ignite a small firestorm in that country given that it seems to apply to any site accessible from inside its borders and the fine is a stiff €50,000. The Like button, used on millions of sites around the world to enlist users to leverage their Facebook social network to share content from 3rd party sites (see: k-factor), is significant enough on its own to put German Web businesses at some competitive disadvantage on the global stage. The concern is over privacy and that “all the information was sent to the US company even if someone was not a Facebook member.

In another similar situation, the Missouri state government’s new law preventing teachers from using social media to communicate privately with students, the former who just announced that they are fighting back, is another case in point. There are obvious free speech issues with the law despite the good intent on its face to protect students. The real issue is that the law is that violations are almost impossible to detect and enforce, until its too late, and that it ensures teachers, one of the most collaborative and interaction driven professions with far reaching impact, can’t have much of a social media presence of any kind until the implications are sorted out. It also presumably doesn’t prevent teachers from privately communicating with their students in any number of other digital channels. All of this means the law won’t accomplish a whole lot other than sowing confusion and promoting the use of increasingly obsolete methods in an increasingly fast-changing economic and societal landscape.

The real issue with both of these laws is that they are 1) essentially short-sighted, 2) exhibit such poor understanding of social media as to be essentially useless, and 3) are therefore unlikely to be meaningfully carried out. Worse, they chip away at the edges by introducing step-by-step, largely ineffective government oversight and control over social media, one of the largest economic, cultural, and societal changes of our time. This will become an even hotter topic as the Middle East’s social media coordinated model for uprising spills out of the developing world. In fact, this has already happened in Britain and there are already cries to ban social media in cases of civil unrest.

I should be careful to note here: I’m not by and large suggesting there’s any overarching government scheme to interfere with and control social media. Instead, I’m suggesting we keep a close eye on these developments as social media legislation increasingly (and inevitably) accumulates in bits and pieces on the base of knee-jerk responses to individual situations. This will have a great many unintended and unwanted consequences. The continued growth of laws and regulations in a vital new industry that thrives on inherent openness and trust has the potential to limit it so profoundly that we could lose much of the great promise that social media can provide.

While we must find ways that work to protect our citizens, we must also provide them access to one of the most open, free, and powerful means of interacting that has been invented. Let’s push back on unreasonable measures while also proactively being responsible for solving them. It’s up to us to start finding globally acceptable solutions to privacy, security, and misuse in social media and getting them into the hands of those who don’t understand this space well enough yet to govern it. The options for making this happen are something I’ll explore as soon as I can.

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