Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt admitted in an interview in Edinburgh on the weekend that Google is taking a hard line on the real-name issue with Google+ because it sees the social network as an “identity service” on which it can build other products.


Updated. Ever since Google launched its new Google+ social network, we and others have pointed out that the search giant clearly has more in mind than just providing a nice place for people to share photos of their pets. For one thing, Google needs to tap into the “social signals” that people provide through networks like Facebook so it can improve its search results. But there’s a larger motive as well: as chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt admitted in an interview in Edinburgh over the weekend, Google is taking a hard line on the real-name issue because it sees Google+ as an “identity service” or platform on which it can build other products.

Schmidt’s comments came during an interview with in response to a question from Andy Carvin, the National Public Radio digital editor who has become a one-man newswire during the Arab Spring revolutions. Carvin asked the Google chairman about the company’s reasoning for pushing its real-name policies on Google+ — a policy that many have criticized (including us) because it excludes potentially valuable viewpoints that might be expressed by political dissidents and others who prefer to remain anonymous. In effect, Schmidt said Google isn’t interested in changing its policies to accommodate those kinds of users: if people want to remain anonymous, he said, then they shouldn’t use Google+.

Google+ is primarily an “identity service”

But it was the former Google CEO’s remarks about the rationale for this policy that were most interesting: He didn’t just say — as Vic Gundotra, the Google executive in charge of the new social network has — that having real names maintains a certain tone of behavior that is more preferable to anonymous forums (an argument that online-community pioneer Derek Powazek has also made). According to Carvin, Schmidt said the reason Google needs users with real names is that the company sees Google+ as the core of an identity platform it is building that can be used for other things:

He (Eric) replied by saying that G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information.

Update: Google provided me with the official transcript of the interview Schmidt gave in Edinburgh (Carvin’s question comes midway through the interview), in which he says:

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… 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.

As Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson noted in a blog post in response to Schmidt’s comments, this is an admission by the company that it wants to be an identity gatekeeper. Others have made similar observations since the launch of Google+. Programmer and online veteran Dave Winer, for example, said when the real-name policy first started to become a hot-button issue that Google’s purpose was clearly to “provide identity in a commerce-ready way. And to give them information about what you do on the Internet, without obfuscation of pseudonyms.” In his blog post, Fred Wilson said:

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Real names are more valuable to advertisers

As I tried to outline in a recent GigaOM Pro research report entitled “How social search is changing the search industry” (subscription required), there’s an obvious search-related rationale for launching a social network like Google+, since indexing and mining that kind of activity can help the company provide better “social search” results. But the real-name issue has more to do with Google’s other business: namely, advertising. Users who are anonymous or pseudonymous are arguably a lot less valuable to advertisers than those who choose to attach their real identities, including their age and gender, location and other demographic details to their accounts.

What kind of services is Schmidt referring to when he says that Google is looking at Google+ as an identity platform that could support other services? Dave Winer thinks that the company wants to effectively become a bank — something he also suspects that Apple and Amazon are interested in as well — and that’s definitely a possibility. Apple and Google both seem interested in NFC technology (near-field communication), which turns mobile devices into electronic wallets, and having a social network tied to an individual user’s identity would come in handy. Ross Dawson says Google wants to build a “reputation engine” using Google+ as a platform.

Update: In the transcript of his interview, Schmidt gives a couple of examples of how Google plans to use the social signals coming from Google+:

[I]f you and I are friends, and — with your permission, this is very important — we can have slightly better search results if I know a little bit about who you are. What about YouTube recommendations? We have this Leanback model where we suggest YouTube videos that you should just watch one after the other. Well if I know the ones that you like, and again with your permission, I can merge that as a signal in, and get a better result.

Whatever its specific interests are, Google clearly sees Facebook as a competitive threat not just because it has developed a gigantic social network with hundreds of millions of devoted users, but also because it has become a kind of identity gatekeeper — with tens of millions of those devoted users happily logging into other websites and services with their Facebook credentials, thus sending Facebook valuable data about what they are doing and where they are doing it. And the ubiquitous “like” button provides even more data, something Google is also trying to mimic with its +1 buttons.

Google needs a horse in the identity race

The bottom line is that Google needs to have a horse in this identity race, and it has been unable to create one so far. The growth of Google+ provides a reason for people to create Google profiles, and that data — along with their activity on the network and through +1 buttons — goes into the vast Google cyberplex where it can be crunched and indexed and codified in a hundred different ways. And the more people who decide to do it, the better it gets, both for Google and for its advertising strategy. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product being sold.

That’s the obvious background to the real-name issue, something Eric Schmidt has effectively confirmed with his remarks in Edinburgh. Whether users like the position that puts them in remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kat B Photography

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  1. I’ll take it a step further and tell you Google AND Apple want to run our lives – offline or on! http://bit.ly/nwKBGw

    1. I read your dumbass article. Quoting from an old Apple patent patent about something that has never happened as opposed to what Google is doing right now. In fact if you knew anything at all you would know that Apple does and is doing alot to safeguard privacy.

      1. Well said “Idon’t Know”

  2. the government is involved in this, is my gut feeling.

  3. GOOG is definitely government owned. Don’t you ever wonder how they just arrived out of nowhere? Beware.

    1. GovHater the This didnt just start with the internet. This took a life of its own after the BMI scandel. Banks are the ones that originally started this practice. Its happening because we are accepting it as reality and neccessity rather thantelling these guys to be more creative

  4. Steve Gerencser Monday, August 29, 2011

    Remember when all we had for bad guys was a giant company that wanted you to use it’s web browser?

  5. I am Motmaitre on Twitter, Motmaitre on my blog, Motmaitre on Disqus. If I cannot be Motmaitre on Google Plus, then I won’t use it. Hasta la Vista, Eric. You coulda been a contender.

    1. Just add a fake/real last name. I suggest Motmaitre Jones. You could even add a fun backstory, if Eric Schmidt requests. Eg, you are a funk singer who loves Voltaire.

    2. Then buh-by Normative or whoever you may really be. Why should I want/need to follow you on twitter, read your blog when I don’t even know who you are and when it’s obviously so important for you to hide under a rock?

  6. Rurik Bradbury Monday, August 29, 2011

    News flash: ALL companies would like to own your online identity. Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn etc etc. It’s a very profitable thing to own.

    1. How does a company “own” your identity? If you can come and go at will, do they own it?

      1. Not literally ‘own’, but become the ID card through which you validate your identity. If you prove you are ‘real’ using a Facebook/Google/Twitter login and password, they get shared knowledge of your online activities, and can monetize that knowledge. Worst case, their staff could pretend to *be* you and make money that way.

    2. Bingo! While all companies want this, it cannot be an all or nothing proposition. There are two types of all or nothing propositions I don’t like:

      1. I wouldn’t want to be in a world where a sole company becomes the most dominant in online identity. A Google owning 98% search market is relatively okay. But a Google owning even 70% or 50% of all online identities is NOT okay.

      2. I wouldn’t want a company or service to include ONLY real names and exclude everything else. A company that wants people’s real names should also be willing to accept anonymous or pseudonymous users.

      Anonymous or pseudonymous users are not without value, advertising or otherwise. Also, insisting on real names only might leave a company with much lesser total users. For example, if you allow all kinds of users, you might end up with (just making up numbers here) 1 million real-name users and 200K pseudonym users, a win-win proposition. If you insist on only real-names, you might end up with only 500 million real-name users and nothing else, a lose-lose proposition.

    3. If I can’t make money being real me, how will they make money pretending to be me.

  7. Peter Cranstone Monday, August 29, 2011

    Remember though, you have my name – but NOT my permission. Huge difference.

    1. Yeah, but it’s a thin line separating them. Especially if you have vested interests in (targeted) advertising.

  8. The title of this reminds me of those odd African tribes that believe if you take their picture you steal their soul. Funny that it seems almost everyone nowdays buys into that rubbish in one form or another.

    1. Michael Sullivan Narg Monday, August 29, 2011


    2. How do you know they were wrong? You will never know, nor will I. What rubbish do you buy into nowdays?

    3. Charlie Crystle Narg Monday, August 29, 2011

      that would be the Amish.

      1. odd african tribe sounds, you know… more odd… and more african (if those are not equivalent in the poster’s worldview)

    4. At least that explains why you don’t link up with your own ID :-)

  9. Google+ is a stalker, and in the future it is going to become a spammer. This is because nobody wants unsolicited advertising, or being profiled by any stupid indian guy that managed somehow to reach at the top of G+ products.

    As in the old story, “The emperor is naked”, however in the same sad manner, all the people from Google, of course, will defend their colleague, even if they somehow feel they’re wrong.

    Anyway, that will help the competition (namely diasp.org or others, too), so in the end (how far, though?) maybe the customers will benefit actually.

    1. > Google+ is a stalker, and in the future it is going to become a spammer.

      The biggest differentiator of Google’s services (Search interface, GMail, etc.) is the near-zero levels of spam and annoying flash and banner ads. Do you know what you are talking about?

      > This is because nobody wants unsolicited advertising, or being profiled by any stupid indian guy that managed somehow to reach at the top of G+ products.

      What is this? I don’t even… Do you even understand what you are talking about?

      I am just gonna ignore the rest of your comment for sounding ignorant and incoherent.

      1. Google advertising is based on the contents of what you are viewig on their services, whether that be search results or the content of your emails.
        That is advertising based on your browsing habits, and do rightfully question just how anonymous that really is based on this article.
        This only makes targeted advertising, and therefore money making easier for google.

      2. @AH You should read this bellow (about what are the dangers of having such a nice data-keeper as Google
        http://blog.cyberwar.nl/2011/05/verified-google-allows-mass-downloading.html). I think we are all exposed to bad things if Google just allow that to happen.

        Making everything public (by search and “be lucky”) should not regard all our sensitive details.

        It seems that the real name was the last frontier before we get exposed (what is going to follow ? our phone number ? our address ? yes, by having the name, one could find everything else, too).

        Having all details on the internet is a very bad thing, worse than the spam, too. Google+ just put a knife in the hand of evil-doers online, don’t you agree with that?

        And yes, Olelaa mentioned an alternative to Google+, which is http://www.diasp.org, you would wonder to see how close is their interface to G+ . With the difference that they have not a stubborn leader as the G+ has. It is, indeed, a single bad person that could create a lot of harm to millions of users …

  10. Tom Jefferson Monday, August 29, 2011

    you are already ID-slaves… who cares how nice of a package you live in? Until we fix the structure of ID as the base construct of socio-economic existence… sign me up… I want to work ‘inside’ that there Masta’s house.

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