On Friday, Google tangled with the wrong Google+ user with an unusual name: Violet Blue.
Blue is a high-profile writer--at least in sex and technology blogging circles--who's even given two talks at Google. And she detailed her weekend-long Google+ ordeal at our sister ZDNet site today. She kept her account once she proved she really is Violet Blue, but Google lost an ally for some of its services when she found she was "guilty until proven innocent."
Google wasn't so happy with the overall situation, either. In an interview with O'Reilly Media Chief Executive Tim O'Reilly today, Google Vice President Bradley Horowitz said of the incident, "That's our bad. We're sorry. We fixed that case."
The episode is hardly the first tussle over online identity at Google+, but it does provide an opportunity to dig into the consequences of not using a real name.
Google insists people identify themselves on Google+ with the common names they use in the real world. That's nice when a person is searching for an acquaintance or trying to avoid fake celebrity accounts, but it's incurred the wrath of those who are known online by pseudonyms. Online identity is a thorny issue, though, and Google is standing firm by its real-name policy.
There are some troubling aspects revealed by Blue's case. For one thing, she only found out about the imminent suspension when she logged in on Saturday, a day into the 96-hour period she had to prove Violet Blue was her real name or to change her name. For another, Google didn't do much work on its own on the verification. And last, the consequences of a Google+ account suspension lead well beyond Google+.
Blue called the Google+ situation "crazy" on Saturday in a post about the potential suspension. She included the text of the Google note, which said, in part:
It appears the name you entered does not comply with the Google+ names policy.
The names policy requires that you use the name that you are commonly referred to in real life in your profile...
If you do not edit your name to comply with the names policy by August 22, 2011, your profile will be suspended: you will not be able to make full use of Google services that require an active profile, such as Google+, Buzz, Reader, and Picasa. This will not prevent you from using other Google services, like Gmail...
Given Google's intransigence on the naming issue and some vagueness in that warning letter, I thought it would be useful to dig into the issue a bit. Here are some questions I asked Google about the Blue's situation and the Google+ names policy more broadly. Here are responses from Saurabh Sharma, product manager on the Google+ team.
CNET: Supposing your Google+ account is suspended because of violations of the Google+ names policy, what other Google services get suspended? For example on Picasa, can you visit other people's photos but not post your own? That's a lot of potential collateral damage for signing up with Google+.
Google: If your profile is under review, you will not be able to make full use of Google services that require an active profile such as Google+, Buzz, and some social features of Reader and Picasa Web Albums. For example, on Buzz, you can't create content, on Reader you can't share items with other users or follow other users, and on Picasa Web Albums you can't comment on photos.
A suspended profile will not prevent you from using other Google services like Gmail, Google Docs, etc. You can continue to post photos on Picasa Web Albums and take other actions.
Why are there reports that people lost Gmail access from earlier G+ account suspensions? Did Google actually do that, or were people confused somehow?
Google: Gmail suspensions are unrelated to Google+ suspensions. It's possible, and an unfortunate coincidence, for users to have both products suspended at the same time, for separate reasons. Earlier in the summer there was some confusion around SMS verification, which we addressed here.
Is there a way to back out of a Google+ account that will leave those other services unscathed if you don't want to reveal your common name in Google+?
Google: Yes. You can downgrade your Google+ account. We strongly believe that people should be able to control the data they store in any of our products, so our Data Liberation Front has created a tool called Google Takeout, to easily download a copy of your data from Google+. Visit Google.com/takeout to learn more.
But if you cancel your Google account, is your ability to comment on Picasa photos still intact, for example?
Google: There are two scenarios. In the first scenario, you elect to disable Google+ by downgrading your Google+ account. Products like Picasa, Reader, and Buzz will revert to the same state they were in before you upgraded to Google+. So yes, you can still comment on photos in Picasa.
In the second scenario you elect to disable Google+ by downgrading your Google+ account while your your Google+ profile is suspended due to a common names violation. What should happen is the same as the first scenario: you should be able to use Picasa, Reader and Buzz as before. We're aware of a bug that currently prevents the use of some social features in those products and we're working to address it soon.
In both scenarios, downgrading from Google+ will have no effect on other Google services like Gmail, Docs, etc.
Why wasn't Violet Blue notified immediately by some means other than Google+ that her account was under review, and why wasn't she told immediately when Google decided it was legit?
Google: We're still improving our process during the field trial, and we agree that there's room for improvement. Expect to see more changes in the future. At present, users are notified in product when they violate our common names policy and are given a 96-hour window to make corrections or appeal.
Updated 6:25 a.m. PT with comment from Google about a bug involving the cancelation of a suspended Google+ accounts.
CNET's Jay Greene contributed to this report.