The great G+ purge: Google's got some ‘splainin to do

Google's hamfisted attempts to purge fake G+ profiles is blowing up in its face. Update: Google responds.

Don't look now, but there's trouble in Google+ paradise. According to multiple reports, Google+ gave the heave ho to an untold number of accounts this past weekend, claiming they violated the social net's "community standards" by using inappropriate names.

google plus error message

(Image courtesy of Richard Bluestein’s Weblog.)

Worse: Several of those booted are reporting that in addition to being kicked off G+, they also had all their Google account data flushed -- emails, photos, videos, Google docs they had created, articles saved in Google Reader, the whole schmear. 

Google's explanation? We don’t know. They haven’t said anything yet. The few clues we’ve had point to G+’s Content Policy, which states:

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

First, let’s give G+ credit for trying to put a leash on fake profiles -- and by extension, scams -- before they get completely out of control. That's something many services conveniently ignored until it was too late (MySpace, I'm talking to you). But the Googlers deserve to be slapped upside the head with a sockful of warm manure for how they've handled this process so far.

[See also: Who’s really tracking your cell phone? ]

First, Google doesn't appear to understand the difference between names and identities. Your name might be Reginald Dwight and all your friends call you ‘Reg’, but your identity is Elton John. What should you use on your G+ account?

Second, arbitrarily deleting someone’s account just because they use a pseudonym is plain stupid. How would Google know what your friends or co-workers normally call you? There are better ways to authenticate identities – like sending a PIN code via SMS to your cell phone number, which only one person can own at any one time. The real goal should be to ensure that people use just one G+ account and use it consistently. Beyond that, who cares what they call themselves?

As for deleting people’s Google Data lock, stock, and gbarrel, it may not be related to the names issue at all. But if it’s related to another Terms of Service violation, Google has not been at all clear about what these people did wrong. Hopefully they’re just mistakes that will be corrected; still, Google’s silence on this whole matter is troubling.

On Google+, Robert Scoble posted brief notes from a spectacularly unhelpful 'interview' with Google veep Vic Gudontra, in which he says essentially “mistakes were made,” without ever elaborating on what mistakes and how G+ is planning to make good on them. Per Scoble:

He also says they are working on ways to handle pseudonyms, but that will be a while before the team can turn on those features (everyone is working hard on a raft of different things and can't just react overnight to community needs).

Thanks, Bob, for that incisive commentary. By the way, you got something on your nose. Here’s a hankie.

If a real reporter were talking to Gudontra, here’s what he or she might have asked.

* How many accounts were purged for fake names? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

* How does Google determine that a name isn’t real? Is it a manual process, or one of Google’s gazillion algorithms?

* What kind of appeals process is there? How do people get their accounts reinstated? What kind of ‘proof’ will Google accept for people’s names?

* If you’re working on a system for handling pseudonyms, why kick people out now for using pseudonyms? Why not wait until your systems are in place?

* How many people lost all their Google data? Was this related to the names purge? What kinds of TOS violations would result in that kind of penalty? Why aren’t you telling your users what they did to deserve the boot?

Remember, by mishandling this names fiasco Google is managing to tick off the early adopters – not only the most dedicated users of social media, but also the loudest.

That's certainly one way to ensure your service will never turn into a Facebook killer.

[UPDATE: After I posted this, Google's Bradley Horowitz posted a blog entry on G+ detailing a number of changes to how Google will be handling 'fake' names. ZDnet blogger Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has a nice summary here.]

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan is better known to his friends as Throatwarbler Mangrove. Visit his eHumor site eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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