Online Privacy: Enabling Identified, Pseudonymous, & Unidentified Uses

Alma Whitten (Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, Google) in her blog post “The freedom to be who you want to be… makes the distinction between three modes of online use which Google sees itself as serving. The distinction between the three is important for those of us who are interested in online privacy, especially for those activists who are working in closed or repressive societies. In that interest, let me share the description of the three types of use in full:

Unidentified. Sometimes you want to use the web without having your online activity tied to your identity, or even a pseudonym—for example, when you’re researching a medical condition or searching for that perfect gift for a special someone. When you’re not logged into your Google Account (or if you never signed up for one), that’s how you’ll be using our services. While we need to keep information like IP addresses and cookies to provide the service, we don’t link that information to an individual account when you are logged out.

Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. You can use pseudonyms to upload videos in YouTube or post to Blogger.

Identified. There are many times you want to share information with people and have them know who you really are. Some products such as Google Checkout rely on this type of identity assurance and require that you identify yourself to use the service. There may be other times when it’s more desirable to be identified than not, for example if you want to be part of a community action project you may ask, “How do I know these other people I see online really are community members?”

Now, Google sees itself as enabling all three types of uses and users. You have to be an identified user for certain services or you can opt to be a pseudonymous user under certain conditions (someone may want to mask their identity if they want to upload a protest video from Libya for example) or you may want to search as a completely anonymous user.

There of course are risks even within this model. For instance, would it be possible to track down someone who posted a pseudonymous video by the IP address, especially if the IP is the same that is connected to their identified self? However, the fact of the matter is that Google sees itself as serving all three modes of use. Sure, they may not make certain tools available for some types of use, e.g., when you buy something using Google Checkout. However, they are not denying any of the critical services such as Search, YouTube, and Blogger to users in pseudonymous or unidentified mode.

This is distinctly different from how certain other online services treat different types of use. Ahem, Facebook…I am looking at you. 

Facebook requires that you are an identified user to use any of its services. No, you cannot even be pseudonymous. You have to be a registered and identified user before you can do anything. See Jillian York’s meticulous researching and reporting on the impact of Facebook’s terms of service on advocacy work and activists, particularly “The Risk of Facebook Activism in the New Arab Public Sphere.”

So, kudos to Google on doing the right thing. Thumbs down to Facebook on this one.


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