Despite officially being on vacation, I’ve been trying out some of the tech’s on my “to-explore-list”, most notably Google’s G+ service. I signed in to G+ on July 13th, but two weeks later, I decided to close my account. Since some of the people I had in my circles are also people I know from Facebook, I decided to post a short notice on Facebook just to let them know that I’d left the G+ service. When asked why, these were some of my immediate reasons:
I disagree on the terms of service, especially the part that excludes people in need of pseudonyms, and I’m shocked by the way, Google treats its customers. I had hoped G+ could replace FB/Twitter, but a service that excludes a large part of Internet users, incl. my personal network (and not only avatars), is of no use to me. G+ has been an eye-opener for me in terms intellectual property and cloud computing, and I’ll write a post about it since I think it has implications in an educational and democratic perspective …
Now, Internet law, ToS, intellectual property, etc. are not topics I normally deal with, so this post is simply an account of my personal experience as a “regular” user/customer of Google services. As so many other tech-oriented educators, I enjoy exploring new technologies in terms of educational potential, and this professional interest was if fact my initial reason to start on G+. I was especially excited about the possibility to “circle” connections allowing me to control communication, the prospect of being able to create synchronous “hangouts”, create “sparks”, and the integration with other Google services seemed like a very convenient solution. Despite my current hesitation towards G+, I still believe it is a service with huge educational potential – this doc explores some of these potentials.
Having done research in Second Life (SL) since March 2007, I’ve come to know and respect SL users as tech-savvy, early adopters and so of course my SL connections were some of the first people I added to my circles. In hindsight, it is no surprise that it was through my SL connections, my avatar friends that I first came to hear about the pseudonymity controversy. Not until recently has it been possible to sign up for SL by using your own name, consequently all SL users are used to using pseudonyms, many (myself included) use these pseudonyms in other Internet services, and in fact many SL users are only known by their pseudonym/avatar names. However, Google decided for a non-pseudonym (albeit unclear) policy, and shortly after I entered G+, I started noticing reports of SL/pseudonym-users being excluded from the service. From my research in virtual worlds, I’m fully aware that the mere idea of having a “virtual identity” that somehow differs form a “real identity” is something that provokes the ignorant and often causes controversy, and I honestly don’t think this non-pseudonym problem had gained much attention had it not affected many other users besides avatars. But it did/it does, and soon the controversy hit other media and G+ itself. I’m not going to repeat the controversy, but will link to this excellent post by Kee Hinckley, who elaborates on the issue, the pros and cons, and links to some of the articles written on the subject.
As stated in my own quote above, I was shocked by the way, Google treats its customers. I don’t usually use words like “shocked” when reflecting on professional matters, but it is the truth. I admit that up until now I’ve been incredibly naïve about ToS and intellectual property, I also admit that I often have not taken the time to thoroughly read ToS (not only on Google), but simply have accepted these in a “well, what else can I do” (stupid, stupid!) manner. And so, I was shocked reading Thomas Monopoly’s story. Followed by a brief automated statement by Google saying that it had “perceived a violation”, Google decided to close all of Monopoly’s services with Google. As it later turned out, Monopoly (as he explains here) had in fact violated the Google ToS unintentionally by posting a series of pictures on The Evolution of Sex (as part of an art project) in which one was flagged as child pornography by Google’s automated systems. It is not for me to question the violation, and it is of course Google’s right to enforce its policy. I am, however, questioning Google’s procedure. The Monopoly case had nothing to do with the pseudonymity controversy, but it revealed how Google handles its business and its customers. The “guilty, until proven innocent” approach, is also the way Google handles pseudonymity issues – e.g. this, this, and this case. The last case is especially grotesque since this G+ user actually used his real names. Again, I’m not questioning Google’s legal rights, but from a moral point of view, I do find its way of enforcing its rules and regulations very dubious – Jyri Engeström has written an excellent comment on this – in G+ !
Here I’m only referring to a few examples in the Google controversy, but to sum up seeing part of my network being excluded combined with an unclear and sometimes unwarranted procedure, I decided to close my account. I did not use my pseudonym in G+, and I did not intend to violate Google’s ToS. But I lost my confidence in Google. Up until now, I’ve been a satisfied user of several of Google’s services, but now I’ve started to export my content to other providers – not that I have any immediate intentions of leaving my other Google services, I like them and I am a creature of habit, but just in case … and this leads me to the educational perspective on all of this.
For the last couple of years, Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)/Networks (PLNs) have been concepts explored by many tech-oriented educators who have a wish to try and tear down the walls of education and especially traditional Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)/Learning Management Systems (LMS’) in order to open up education to the rest of the world, and Cloud Computing has been a central concept in this work. I entered G+ thinking that maybe here Google had come up with an interesting solution that could supplement our efforts in this area. However, the returning problem of using (free) hosted services is that of property, and ever so often, I hear system administrators express reluctance towards moving our activities into the “Cloud”. In this Google controversy, I’ve seen the “well, what did you expect – it is a free service” argument in several comments. Well, frankly I do expect even a free service provider to treat its customers right. I would also argue that the term “free” is debatable; we the customers “pay” with our content/our behavior. If the free service providers didn’t make any money on us, they wouldn’t be doing it. Again, this is not my area of expertise, I just call it as I see it, but I must admit that this Google experience has made me very conscious of the pitfalls of moving our content and practices out of our safe, but closed and proprietary VLE. Sadly in this way, I also think the Google controversy can be a set-back in terms of loosening up the traditional educational boarders, and this will not only affect Google’s own services, but also those of other providers.
My final reflection on this combines the educational perspective with that of democratization. Some months ago, I wrote a post in relation to the “Purpose of Education” (Purpos/ed) initiative. In this post I referred to the Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to education, and in my perspective this must include rights to information and the freedom of expression. Incidentally, the UN Human Rights Committee, only this week released a general comment stating that the right to freedom of expression outweighs all other rights.
Previously, and probably naively, I’ve always considered Google to be an important player in the democratization of information, but based on my current experience with G+, I’m wondering what role Google actually sees itself playing, I’m honestly surprised by Google, and I admit, I expected a different approach, when first we heard of Google wanting to launch an alternative to Facebook. Even though my faith in Google has been shattered, I’ve not completely given up (not that I think it cares, but maybe it should), and I do recognize that G+ has been in beta. However, being in beta does not mean “do evil, and sort it out afterwards” – it means “do no evil, to begin with”. I’m truly hoping Google will listen to its customers, and learn. If nothing else, I hope Google recognizes that the controversy and the many reactions by and large reflect that people care – care about Google, and more importantly care about people.