Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nymwars: Parsing the Signal

As the Nymwars issue continues to gain momentum and press coverage outside the blogging and Twitter communities, I'd like to examine some of the signals prevalent in this debate - particularly those of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Schmidt has made some interesting statements over a period of time that deserve examination as to their semantic value; the signifiers and their meaning.

Schmidt is also trumpeting position statements from other sources; I assume readers will be acquainted with these statements and arguments; if not, just use Google use ixquick to search for "nymwars" and follow the press, or follow the links in this post for sources.

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What's the frequency, Kenneth?

Google's Schmidt had already raised hackles earlier in a CNBC interview from Dec. 11, 2009 when he said:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it's important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."

This sounded to many people suspiciously like the meme "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide" which has over the past 8 years become a widely-distributed slogan/mantra that is intimately connected with the granting of expansive powers to the US intelligence and surveillance agencies [TSA, NSA].

The second part of his statement was more ominous in light of the 2009 U.S. District Court opinion [PDF] by federal judge Michael Mosman involving a case in which the government had probable cause for a search and asked Google to provide nine months of a Gmail subscriber's e-mails, seeking evidence of the crime. Furthermore, the feds asked that the search warrant be sealed and that the user shouldn't be told what was happening. Mosman's ruling reversed an earlier decision that the user must get a receipt after the government rifles through e-mail; though he says electronic communications are protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure, those protections don't apply to the e-mail user.

It also ominous in the light of the reason the US government subpoenaed Google for search records of millions of random users: to establish the need for a federal online pornography law. Read that again; the Feds trolled through millions of random users’ emails for evidence in establishing new laws; users that were not under investigation for any crime.

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Concerns about Google's handling of user data have been raised before; Google had already been embroiled in controversy with the launch of Google Buzz last year, incurring Federal Trade Commission charges that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network [Buzz].

Even earlier, in 2007 when Schmidt was only CEO, the international watchdog group Privacy International released a report [PDF] in which Google Inc performed very poorly, scoring lowest among the other major companies surveyed for protecting the privacy of its users. Moreover, Privacy International accused the company of engaging in a smear campaign in response to the group's findings.

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The launch of the Google+ service as an "invite-only" began around June 29, 2011. Early adopters started reporting trouble with profile suspensions and loss of related Google services.

Users continued to report suspensions for the use of nyms/handles and more users started reporting being suspended for perfectly-legal "real names" that Google rejected for varying reasons. None of the statements from Google shed much light on what exactly the criteria were for being accepted as a "real person" and directions from Google on "authorizing" or "verifying" a name were contradictory, vague and ineffective.

The feedback from Google's position began to grow exponentially as more and more writers started to examine Google's statements and actions. It became clear that the issues involved were far greater than first suspected.

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The Signifying Monkey

One of the earliest signals in the Nymwars - "if you don't like it, don't use it" - seemed to be the quick response on Twitter and blog comments to people reporting on their blocked or suspended accounts. "No one's forcing you to use it" was also a common refrain, as was "oh that can't be true" in reaction to people reporting that despite Google's assurances and rhetoric, other pre-established services were being affected by Google+ suspensions.

This position was taken up by Schmidt:

"Well, the first comment is that Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many many people want to get in, if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to."

"... said the reason the company wants Google+ users to use real names, differing from Facebook, which allows users to employ fake names, is that Google+ is "completely optional."

Unfortunately, he was being moderately disingenuous; Google+ suspensions were affecting far more than the "social networking service." People whose G+ profiles were suspended were finding themselves locked out of Gmail, Google groups, Google Docs and other Google offerings; services Google had not previously made similar "real name documentation" requirements for signing up and using those services. In effect, people were already invested in those apps (for several years in many cases).

He's also being less than truthful: Facebook's policies of "real names" have been being applied for over a year and he certainly knows this. Just a little extra swipe at FB; this is "reasoned debate" :P

Schmidt already knew that Google+'s aim went far beyond launching a "social networking service." So did Google’s Open Web advocate Chris Messina, who spoke about wanting to "clarify misconceptions of the National Strategy for Trusted Identities In Cyberspace [NSTIC]" in January 2011.

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In a Q&A session with NPR's Andy Carvin at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival triggered in part by the growing discussion on Twitter and in the blogosphere, Schmidt revealed that Google had an end-game in mind all the time -being an "identity service" - confirming the suspicions of the initial writers and netizens who had vocally questioned Google's given rationale for "wallet names" but were subject to sidelining with the "don't like it, don't use it" argument.

Schmidt went on to make quite a few interesting statements:

"If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you."

This reference is not original: it is a famous cartoon by Peter Steiner first published in The New Yorker, page 61 July 5, 1993 (Vol.69 (LXIX) no. 20) but from a much-earlier common net aphorism. So Mr. Schmidt is neither as original nor clever as he would have you think.

Schmidt also is either ignorant of the meaning of this aphorism or is being deliberately condescending. The context of this saying was begun in reference to dating/sexual contacts in a text-only medium. Typical of intelligent net-humor at the time, the meaning was two-fold: "dog" referring to "physically/sexually unattractive" but also that looks didn't matter as much on the Internet as what you were saying. Since Schmidt likes to brag he "worked on [strong net identity] as a scientist 20 years ago," he surely knows the origin and meaning of this meme.

Schmidt is also making a rather lame and transparent straw man argument - no one in their right mind would believe a canine capable of typing on a keyboard. Likewise "fake person" - it's difficult to imagine some sort of "imaginary person" that can type on a keyboard. Ghosts? Fairies? Unicorns? Just to make sure you understand how ridiculous and troublesome "fake people" are, he tosses in "spammers or what have you." I guess that's to cover hackers, terrorists and whatever other boogeymen are out there, ready to be raised.


" the Western world, what we decided to do was to take the position that we wanted people to be willing to be at least identified by some sort of a real name."

This is a strange little bit - pretty pompous, equating Google with "the Western world." He also seems to be ignoring both physical and digital history regarding nicknames, pseudonyms, nom de plumes, aliases and handles. I guess only infidels use handles.


"And the notion of strong identity was never invented in the Internet. Many people worked on it - I worked on it as a scientist 20 years ago, and it’s a hard problem. So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth and so on, there are all sorts of reasons."

Schmidt is again being either deliberately disingenuous or appallingly ignorant. The entire Nymwars discussion revolves around reputation-backed nyms/handles. That is the "identity" question being engaged.

There's no difference between someone handing me a business card with "John Z. Smith" on it and reading a post by Skud; unless I know John, or someone has recommended him to me, his name means nothing; it is not a passport of validity. On the other hand, I know fairly well who Skud is; he's written a lot of interesting things that back up his assertions of working for Google, knowing about technology and etc. Of course I don't have his phone number or credit card numbers, nor do I need them in order to read what he has to say. I provisionally accept his statements based on his established reputation.

I do find it amusing that as hard as Schmidt is pushing "trusted computing" and "real names" and "security" that he can blurt out "sort of hold them accountable", which undermines the given need...

Until we get to the meat: "we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth." Under all the high-flying rhetoric is the base issue: marketing... at least that is the fallback/takeaway position.


"But my general rule is people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank."

Schmidt cannot be this ignorant - any criminal is going to be able to bypass these "identity services"; you're not going to stop any hardcore black-hat hackers this way. It's also exceedingly weird that he would go on to say he was not suggesting eliminating them! Take a look at that whole statement for a second; there's evil people on the internet... it would be useful to 'weed them out'... but not eliminate them? Google is going to eliminate evil on the internet through low rankings???


The +1 button now shares directly to Google+ and it’s added friend annotations; and Google+ posts now appear in Google search results, which means those posts will have a disproportionate amount of weight in Search. It is also a recipe for gaming search results. Google says it is building this service for you. But it's certainly more likely that Google is building this service for themselves.

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Parsing the Signal

The Nymwars skirmish is only a visible wave of a much deeper undercurrent that has been creeping up regarding the control and distribution of personal information and data and the issues of identity, privacy and surveillance - "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects..." Ostensibly, this push is being sold as marketing - either selling your data to advertising companies or making "secure" purchases over the interwebs.

The reason for people's concern and growing displeasure is that these issues have implications that reach far beyond their stated marketing aims. Given that Google is currently under pressure from the Department of Justice and the FTC on antitrust and criminal liability issues [whether justified or not] which could break up or severely cripple Google's business, and given Schmidt's plain warning that Google's data records are subject to handover to federal authorities without a warrant, it's not paranoia to examine whether Google might be colluding [er of course I mean 'cooperating'] with federal authorities in setting up a centralized "identity database." And remember, Google is trying to break into TV, that OldMedia bastion of moguls and lobbyist-buyers.

And as Alvin and Heidi Toffler presciently wrote in "Power Shift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century" in 1990, "The biggest customer for information (data) is always government."

There's plenty more here to be concerned with than marketing; there's a lot more going on than some nice attempt to make it easier for you to shop digitally. Schmidt's stated goals for an "identity service" are too resonant with the position that the Internet "is like the Wild West" and needs "cleaning up." This signal has been constant and growing for 15+ years and has accelerated greatly in the last 4-5 years, beginning to crest like a deep-ocean wave on tidal currents laid down long before.

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This signal preys on the ignorance of most people, who know next-to-nothing about how the nets [or even their own computers] work. It conflicts with evidence from high-profile cases brought by federal and commercial entities using only ISP information to track down crackers and copyright violators. It pretends ignorance as to the technical details of network administration and logging. It refuses to admit that most security problems on the nets are caused by lax or nonexistent security practices on the part of commercial entities. It will not discuss encryption and public-key cryptography, two obvious and available security measures that could have been implemented 10 and more years ago.

It is propaganda; disinformation; infowar. The model of centralized control it seeks to impose on the network conflicts with the structure of the internet itself. It will not accept that the Internet is not merely a controllable, one-way broadcast medium which can incidentally harvest our content and personal information for commercial purposes. It is an attempt to reduce the possibilities of the net to an old, outdated channeled model for the profit of the Gatekeepers and to eliminate their need to pay content providers (us).

It does not understand what the internet is or what the Information Revolution is about. It is frightened of the non-hierarchical structure of the nets; of the ability of people to broadcast their signals outside the tightly-controlled channels of media. It does not like a free press or the distribution of knowledge and news outside of its control. The meme of "transparency" they push is not true; theirs is a one-way transparency; allowing full access to your entire life, thoughts and history while maintaining their right to secrecy in government and corporate boardrooms.

This is a war for control of the channels of communication by frightened men who see their media empires coming apart, their channels of propaganda fading under the decentralized model of the network and who share common aims with current government administrations: control of all channels of access to information.

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We, the People...

What began with discussions on Twitter under the #nymwars, #plusgate and #googlegate hashtags about people being suspended from Google+ for using "fake names" has entered the mainstream press and engendered a dialogue about culture, identity, corporate action and the price of "free."

Google has found that, far from being accepting and quiescent consumers of goods, there are real people on the net - people who have strong opinions and voices (even if we use self-chosen names). Most of those people have given large amounts of their lives to the Internet, seeing in it a revolution of communication and accessibility that dwarfs any other technological tool of our time. This group of people have a culture that reaches back to before Google came onto the scene, and they have been speaking out against the dictates of corporations to determine the use of what was once a public utility and has been privatized for the profit of a few.

That is one signal I am monitoring that gives me great joy and hope. Without our voice, this issue would have floated by the radar of most people, and like many of the other small movements being detailed in this blog, it would have crept in and set precedent without any debate at all. I am immensely proud of the people in my community who chose to stand and speak out on this issue; to weather the storm of objections, astroturfing, "sit down and be polite" catcalls and disinformation to express their views and attempt to protect the internet and the future of public free discourse.

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The Real ID Act of 2005 was an attempt to create a centralized federal database by the Department of Homeland Security. As of this date all 50 states have either applied for extensions of the original May 11, 2008 compliance deadline or received unsolicited extensions. As of October 2009, 25 states have approved either resolutions or binding legislation not to participate in the program.

Here's a CNET article from 2006 which covers Section 113 of the "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005" bill signed by Bush in January 2006.

Section 113 focused on "Preventing Cyberstalking." It rewrote existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet "without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy." Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and the section's other sponsors slipped it into an unrelated, must-pass bill to fund the Department of Justice. The tactic worked. The bill cleared the House of Representatives by voice vote, and the Senate unanimously approved it Dec. 16. An earlier version that the House approved in September had radically different wording. It was reasonable by comparison, and criminalized only using an "interactive computer service" to cause someone "substantial emotional harm."

You might want to read this excellent research from a 2009 graduate student, 8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight, particularly the section "Follow The Money" which details how ISPs make a lot of money from wiretap requests.

"You have zero privacy anyway, get over it” was first uttered in January, 2009 by Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy. Now everyone's doing it! everyone's doing it everyone's doing it

You should be aware of Romas/COIN and its relationship to the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace [NTSIC], the "conceptual framework for a system of voluntary, interoperable credentials that could be widely accepted for online transactions" released April 15, 2011, particularly because Google is part of the NSTIC OIX interoperability tests.

[just in case you need another dot to connect, this is from the NTSIC document linked at left under "Legal":

"The private sector will be the primary developer, implementer, owner, and operator of the Identity Ecosystem, which will succeed only if it serves as a platform for innovation in the market."

So no one's spinning tin-foil hats investigating this issue]

And you might want to follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuits dating back to 2006 regarding the National Security Agency's illegal tapping of the AT&T fiber-optic backbones to route a complete copy of internet and phone traffic to the 'SG3' secure room operated by the NSA [PDF summary of evidence]

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Eric Schmidt is afraid this dog is using Google services


  1. Concise, well documented and researched summary of the issues that are all tied up in the whole nymwars debate.
    Thank you for setting it out so clearly.

  2. Excellent post Miso. Thanks for taking the time to tie it all together.

  3. Thanks guys. It's an octopus of an issue, especially because the groundwork for all this has been being laid for over 10 years.

    I'm hoping this blog can provide links to information that has been buried or swept out of sight in order that people can understand that this is a concerted and multi-pronged attack on what the Internet is and can be.

  4. Wonderful article! I particularly liked your optimistic tone about how supporters of privacy might, after all, still "win" in the end.

    "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide". George Orwell, "1984"? Do people still read books?

  5. I think the idea of an ID service is the key there. See, Google is already a quasi-monopoly on searches. I mean, if your business, your blog, or whatever, is not there, it's as if it weren't on the internet. Now, Google hasn't been able to do that in the personal field. Right now, Facebook is the best positioned service to do that. You already can sign in many websites with your FB account. There are blogs that require that if you want to leave a comment. It's not just marketing or selling stuff, see? It's about being a portal to IDs on the internet, which is itself something that some would pay a lot for.

    Now, the whole thing about G+ not being for everyone... if it's gonna have influence on searches - which Google already controls in a vast extension - I bet people will want to be there. If webpages start requiring a Google ID for the signing up process, I bet people will want to be there. If G+ succeeds as an ID service, I hope it doesn't become a monopoly, as I hope FB's monopolistic tendency can be broken, too. Otherwise people will face another danger - which, resorting to Gwyneth's reference, can be described as follows:

    "People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word." (George Orwell)

    (No, I don't think we'll come to that point tomorrow, but people having their access to some - and sometimes all - Google services denied when their profiles were suspended was already like deleting some part of their online existence)