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It’s official: Google wants to own your online identity

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Updated. Ever since Google (s goog) 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 (s aapl) and Amazon (s amzn) 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

53 Responses to “It’s official: Google wants to own your online identity”

  1. Well, it’s finally happening:
    Originally, it was banks that used our personal information and personal profiles as a revenue generating business plan(Business Model). Now, it’s becoming more clear to a lot of people that, that is the only revenue business plan used by internet commerce. I pity those that have entrusted their whole life to the “digital beehive culture.”

    Unfortunately, 98% of these people are unaware or care about their identity (Personal Autonomy.) Just think Facebook.

    As for me,I mastered the art of “Pseudo-anonymity” at the beginning of the internet age. That is why it is very simple for me, even though I realize that I will never be totally anonymous, to find a cure against the new personal autonomy weapons being created by the facebook.coms and google.coms.

    For example, I use an android phone and if Google eventually cancels my email account, the only account that I have connected to their services, I will simply cancel Google out of my life. I know, you say that it can’t be done-yes it can be done. And for those who are ignorant enough to think that other corporate entities such as Apple are not in this game, I say, you should stay withing the 98% of those who live in digital bliss. No, no chats, no excessive internet participation, no social visits to the beehive, no digital life vault-just a couple of necessary emails. And I might say, if I have to live without those I will. As you look through the haze, you too can discover the internet is not as necessary to your living as you try to convince yourself that it is. Boy, I pitty the new digit-info-bound generation.

  2. “As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product being sold”

    …and if you are tricked into signing a service/product ToS (an agreement with you) which afterwards is to be changed retroactively and unilaterally, then it is already trivial scam scheme

  3. Danish Ahmed

    I must say the title is bit surprising, wasn’t it apparent that Google been trying track user’s online identity ever since it required,verification by phone to create new Google account. As of yet, Google has been doing a fine job,using user’s browsing history to serve contextual ads but social sites esp Facebook were already ahead in tracking online Ids of users. Facebook definitely has a head-start. When Google was collecting browser data,Facebook users were providing data about themselves as well as their friends while simply using the service. Both the concepts of online identity and social sharing concept simply because they are also the core concept around which the service was built.

    Google+ aim seems to be doing the same thing , track identity and reputation, but has it been successful ? I am unaware. IMHO, its not just the identity but also the data that both Google and Facebook desire. It doesn’t sound promising but thankfully both Google and Facebook lack something crucial but different for each. Google has entered too late into the game,despite its growing users,it doesn’t look like a serious threat to Facebook. As for Facebook, despite it’s huge cache of social objects, it still doesn’t have a revenue generation model like Google’s Adwords/Adsense which sustained Google. They seem like two beast with their horns locked at an angle that they don’t hurt each other. Good for us :)
    Please check out the following

  4. Garance A Drosehn

    Here’s a point I’d like to make:

    I went to reply to some random blog last night, and in order to reply this blog wanted me to log in with either my Google account or with OpenID. (I’m pretty sure I have set up OpenID accounts in the past, but I forget what they were. But ignore that for now…)

    This got me thinking: Google isn’t just an “identity service” for people who want to get in touch with old friends. It is increasingly an identity service for *MANY* web sites online. And it is easy to see why. Web sites are tired of fighting spammers, and they’ll be more than happy to hand authentication of “user comments” over to someone like Google, Facebook, or Twitter as long as that is easy for them to do.

    So, when you’re thinking that the #nymwars are only an issue for those who want to use google+, you should wonder what the future will hold. It is easy to imagine a future where there will be a lot of sites where you will be required to comment “with your real name”, even if you have no interest in using google+ to share your favorite photos of cute kittens.

  5. notproudofmyname

    Why should they need your real name for their business if they are able to convince you to give them your credit card number and they know what you are looking for at internet? Knowing what you buy and what you want, who cares who you are?

  6. Google+ and FB already owns a lot of our data, and its the MONOPOLY that hurts. It would be nice if Myspace did not sie, and Bebo, hi5, Ning and others flourished. While I can avoid, if I want to, FB or Google by not using it, how can I avoid literally thousands of sites which FORCES ME to have a FB identity just to log in and post comments, or use a FB comment system? It is really shocking that the internet community as a whole does not protest to this atrocity, and that still there are no antitrust or similar legal suite against FB. I wish someone starts this fast, hey Gigaom!

  7. Lowell Nickens

    You didn’t have to be a genius to see this one coming. Facebook, to some peoples surprise, has always had something that Google envied which was a name and a password to get in their front door, and now that the battle lines have been drawn, it’s going to get real heated in the trenches, because this round is for all the marbles and if you don’t have anything to hide, should be very interesting to watch.

  8. Douglas Crets

    Nice. Thanks for stepping up and finally saying google is acting as gatekeeper here. We really need a decentralized system, not a gatekeeper. This isn’t high school.

  9. Doughbury

    I largely see this as further evidence that Google is growing up, becoming less of a company that values innovation and novelty and more of a corporation that values profit. With the death of Labs and the halt on annonymity, it seems that Google is showing itself under Page to be a company that no longer means fun and whimsy, but now means Serious Business. I suppose that is the nature of things, and the evolution of a successful company, but I’ll miss the company that valued immagination.

  10. I’m not sure that this will turn into the huge apocalyptic disaster that some have claimed it will. Advertisers have been doing this sort of thing for years, trying to get more personal information about potential clients is becoming the norm. So as long as we are aware of this shouldn’t we, the masses, be able to control this to some degree?
    Just my 2 cents.

  11. I think one of the greatest things about the web was anonymity, and slowly that is disappearing. All google’s plan does is force people to use their services for only certain things. Quite frankly, the last thing i want to do is have to worry about how something i post (pictures, words, etc.) might one day bite me in the ass. The reality of the web is, people say and do stupid things. Things that they may not necessarily want associated with their real identities. If you take that away, all it will mean is that I’ll use google less and only for certain things. Either that, or like with email addresses, there will be one account for serious stuff and one for junk.

  12. Rex Hammock

    Is there a difference in *owning* and *hosting* ones identity? Closest thing most of us can do who aren’t server-owning techies is find a way to host as much of who we are on a Domain name we own. When Google+ extends to Google Apps for Business accounts, that will be possible — my corporated email is hosted there — as are 3 million other businesses (they claim) using a domain other than Also, as far as Google vs. Facebook vs. Apple vs. Amazon (who, together, know everything there is to know about me), Google has the best site (hard to find, however) offering info and a set of “liberation tools” I can find among that group:

  13. Steve Ardire

    No we don’t need GOOG as identity keeper

    A more equitable approach is
    The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) envisions a cyber world – the Identity Ecosystem – that improves upon the passwords currently used to log-in online. It would include a vibrant marketplace that allows people to choose among multiple identity providers – both private and public – that would issue trusted credentials that prove identity.

  14. fjpoblam

    Google wants to. Fortunately, we’re free not to let them. In words like Google’s elsewhere, “another social network is just a click away.” So let’s.

  15. Tom Jefferson

    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.

  16. Olalaaa

    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 or others, too), so in the end (how far, though?) maybe the customers will benefit actually.

    • > 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.

      • Ian Bunting

        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.

      • Bonkers

        @AH You should read this bellow (about what are the dangers of having such a nice data-keeper as Google 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, 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 …

  17. 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.

  18. Rurik Bradbury

    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.

      • Rurik Bradbury

        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.

    • 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.

    • Rurik Bradbury

      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.

    • 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?

    • 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