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Now, Google+ issues verification badges

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If you’re a celebrity, a public figure, or have a wide circle of friends on Google’s social networking site, Google+ (Plus), being anonymous or using a pseudonym is no longer an option. A few days ago, Google+ started rolling out verification badges on profiles, “so you can be sure the person you’re adding to a circle is who he claims to be”.

“Not sure whether is actually a particular Dolly Parton? For now, we’re focused on verifying public figures, celebrities, and people who have been added to a large number of circles, but we’re working on expanding this to more folks,” says employee Wen-Ai Yu on the official Google blog post. When you visit the profile of a celebrity or a public figure, you would spot a verification badge next to their profile names. This would help you easily determine which profiles are owned by real and verified people. “You might be wondering how to verify your own name on Google+. Keep in mind this is just the beginning. We’re working on expanding this to include more people in the future, so hang tight,” adds Yu.

Incidentally, Facebook, too, has a verification process, but it is only for the enterprise/brand that uses its platform. However, individuals typically sign-in on with their real names. Twitter, too, verifies accounts of celebrities or those who have large followings. However, Twitter’s public beta version of account verification is no longer available.

Indian social media marketing companies believe this is a step in the right direction, since it helps get rid of fake identities. “It is an extremely important aspect for any social networking platform, as it is difficult to know the authenticity of a user. In case of celebrities, we have seen how fake accounts can create challenges. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s identity was impersonated by an imposter on a popular social networking site. Brands, too, have a tough time. This makes sense for common users as well. If Google manages to take this excercise on a larger scale, it would be a differentiator in the market. It has been struggling to increase the number of users on Google+,” says Hareesh Tibrewala, joint chief executive, Social Wavelength.

One of the biggest problems in any online system today is that of fake identities. “This would make sure people on Google+ are genuine and would try and stop fake accounts,” says Rajiv Dingra, founder, WatConsult. Moksh Juneja, founder, Avignyata, thinks says, “I think on a social networking platform, the verification process is good for celebrities, brands and firms like ours. In case of Google+, the verification process makes sense, as it also plans to launch business solutions.”

However, the move by Google+ to seek real names has once again raised the question of how social networking sites can strike a fine balance between holding users accountable for what they post (write or tweet), and the need for anonymity for political activists and whistle-blowers, especially in countries where the internet is closely monitored. Recently, Facebook marketing director and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi Zuckerberg, said anonymity had no place on the internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation countered, saying, “The problem with the civility argument is that it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

“Not only are uncivil discourses alive and well in venues with real name policies (such as Facebook), the argument willfully ignores many voices that are silenced in the name of shutting up trolls: Activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistle-blowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view who can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beaten-up, or harassed for speaking out,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog says. This, even as it acknowledges the fact that as a private company, “Facebook is free to set its own policies,” but simultaneously exhorts users “...an internet in which everyone has to use their real name is not necessarily going to be any more polite, but is guaranteed to be a disaster for freedom of expression. Let’s not go there.”

In June, Facebook, too, was reproached by privacy advocates and regulators across the globe who decried the global roll-out of Facebook’s facial recognition software. The feature, enabled by default, allows Facebook to recognise individual faces within pictures. The company can then recommend its users to ‘tag’ the individual in the photo.

The debate assumes significance, since social networking sites are very popular. They account for over one billion global users, of which over 75 million are in India alone. Facebook has around 33 million users and Orkut (also a Google property) has around 18 million users. Google Plus is also gathering steam, primarily with help from users in India and the US. Within weeks of its launch, the site saw nearly 20 million users sign up. Globally, though, Google+ numbers pale in comparison with Facebook’s over-750 million users or even micro-blogging site Twitter’s over-200 million registered accounts.

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