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Does Google+'s 'real names only' policy make sense?

The sign-in page of social networking site Google+ is seen in Washington on August 6, 2011.

Google has actually throttled back on enforcement of its real-names-only policy in the weeks since Google+ launched. Originally, there was a big roundup of suspected offenders who were unceremoniously given the heave ho. Now users get a warning: four days to change your name to what it really is or you're gone.

Jillian York is the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She says the policy was enacted to encourage people to be more responsible with what they post since it will be associated with their actual name instead of some made up online name. But, says York, the policy has wider implications: "Obviously there's the famous folks who use pen names, but then you also have people whose spouses who works for the government who are not allowed to blog about their own personal life. Or you have someone from a small town, who is gay, lesbian, not out in their community and doesn't feel safe. I heard of an example of a woman who works at Walmart in rural Tennessee, uses a pseudonym online because she's worried she could get fired from her job."

Beyond that, there are political dissidents, people in abusive relationships, people who have strong reasons for not wanting to be found online but wish to use the service. As for Google, says York, "I think they're well aware of those situations. Their own employee was using a pseudonym on Facebook during the Egyptian revolution. There are two minds on this: on one hand, I heard a Google engineer say they worry they can't protect those people and don't think it's their job to protect them. On the other hand, they have said they feel the use of real names creates a more civil environment. To that, I would politely disagree. The worst harassment I've had is from people using real names."

But what if Google changed its mind and started allowing fake names or no names at all? Andres Monroy-Hernandez is a Ph.D candidate at the MIT Media Lab. He's been studying the often wild and unruly message board site 4chan, a site where real names are almost never used. "Even though there is lot of negativity," he says, "there's still lot of pro-social behavior and a lot of sense of community in these different websites that are anonymous. In this particular community, a lot of content that's very personal that you probably wouldn't share if your name was attached to it, both from open-hearted people willing to share feelings to things that are more objectionable."

So there's just more of everything on sites without real names? "Yes. And I think one of the things we've seen is that this lack of username also encourages people to be more creative and more honest about what they say. It's kind of like alcohol. People say honest things when they're drunk or creative things -- but also really terrible things sometimes."

Google declined to be interviewed on the topic, but they did send us this statement:

"Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world. By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know - friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances - in finding and creating a connection with the right person online.

More information on this can be found in our help center: http://www.google.com/support/profiles/bin/answer.py?answer=1228271. Please also see a recent post from Bradley Horowitz in Google+, addressing some concerns, and explaining upcoming changes to our review process."

Also in this program, Rogue24 is a Washington, D.C., restaurant that has had enough of cell phones in the dining room. Guests are given a reservation agreement pointing out that phones are to be put away while you're eating. Owner and chef R.J. Cooper says of cell phone dining: "Frankly, it's just rude. You know, my mother didn't raise me that way in the Midwest."

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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"By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know - friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances - in finding and creating a connection with the right person online"

Except my common name isn't my legal name. I don't WANT to connect to family and co-workers on Google+. I have them on Facebook and that's all I need. G+ would have been just for friends, and all my friends know me by the name you see me using now. Most do know my real name as well, but none would think to look for it first if wanting to search for me on a site like G+, nor would I think to use any of their real names to find them. We all have nick names we use more than our real names, and we all are best known by them. Forcing me to use my real name only makes it harder for the people I most want to interact with to find me.

My problem is slightly different. Google asks that you use the name "People call you" or that you "go by". Well, for me it's CZ.

I've been online as CZ since 1987 and the ITS days. I've had an LJ (cz-unit.livejournal.com) since 2002. People know me as CZ, I've asked them. They call me CZ, they think of me as CZ and when they say "Hey CZ" from across a room I turn my head.

80 of them circled me on Google and yet my account was suspended. Many were willing to send over notarized letters to Google saying they knew me as CZ, no difference.

So oddly enough Google wants me to send over my "Government ID" to use as my name. Which is interesting, nowhere on their site do they even mention "Government ID".

Maybe it's because they would expose themselves as "evil".

CZ

Please don't compare 4chan's *anonymity* with the argument for *pseudonymity* on G+. Anonymity is the practice online of remaining nameless. An anonymous poster doesn't have a name, posts, could come again, post, still no name. But a pseudonym is a consistent label -- like Mark Twain, or Lewis Carroll, a pen name, a pseudonym comes with a reputation. It simply isn't the "real name" of the person behind the nom de plume.

This is critical to online life as more and more of the social capital in our life for business and pleasure moves online -- and must be kept separate.

I live in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, where gay marriage is legal. A businessman here can speak of his husband John with reasonable safety to his personal and business reputation. However, online, he must deal with an unknown set of contacts with unknown prejudices. For many GBLT professionals, it's simply easier to socialize around personal details under a pseudonym -- or 'nym' as they've come to be known on G+.

A teacher, a counselor, a law enforcement officer, a judge, a lawyer, a physician -- many professions have professional or practical reasons to segregate personal and professional details and "audit trails" online. In some cases, professional associations recommend or mandate that the professional not socialize under their real name.

As a result, by adding in GBLT and a subset of professionals, we start to see that just by these populations, Google is excluding 10-20% of everyone's social graph from their service.

What they are doing is including the people least comfortable with pseudonymous accounts -- the literalists, or true beleiver types, who are a prime market for social game companies like Zynga.

When a literalist gets a notice from a game such as Farmville that says, "Oh no! Your cousin Anne's crops are failing! Buy some un-withering compound and save her farm!" that message, from a trusted intermediary of Cousin Anne, is interpreted neurochemically just as though they were really being called to save Anne from disaster. These literalists will shell out real cash for Farm Bucks, reliably as clockwork, to save Anne's farm. They'll even work a couple extra hours a week to make sure they can take care of their social gaming friends and family. They'll buy game currency at the smallest and least efficient exchange rate if they have to.

This is the export of heartland political sausage making to social gaming. And there are not a few of us on G+ who think that this is the coy agenda of the real name policy.

Marketplace -- follow the money.

Alienate 20%+ of the userbase directly -- and the network effects of those users' friends? To what end? Civility? No. Anyone who wants to be rude can create an account under a real-sounding name like say "Brian Donovan" and be as rude as they want.

So why want real-sounding names?

To create a "game preserve." To create a safe space for social gamers who are likely to be comfortable to be fleeced for the most dollars per seat.

But the sad story is, these are also the least likely users to move from Facebook. All in all, it's Buzz all over again.

Google doesn't even care if the name is real. Google only cares that the name look normal. My Dharma Galaxy; which I use in several virtual worlds was rejected, but John Smith, who I decidedly am not, seems to be completely acceptable.

Google's "real names" policy is, unfortunately, a bit of a sham. I determined this experimentally here: http://gewalker.blogspot.com/2011/08/firsthand-examination-of-google-pro...

The comparison with something like 4chan is problematic. People are not asking for anonymity, such as 4chan provides, but for the ability to control how their name is presented. This ability is implied by the design of Google+ and is sadly lacking for reasons having little to do with technology and a great deal to do with prejudice and politics. This is bad for the users, bad for Google and very bad for Google's commercial partners who are engaged in investing in the platform.

I think would be clearer to refer to Google's policy as requiring the use of "government names", rather than "real names" or "common names". Google has made it abundantly clear that they do not care about anyone's real name (i.e., the name they actually use and are known by) -- what they care about is the government-sanctioned name.

Remember April 2009, when Google refused to require YouTube users to register their government-sanctioned names at the demand of South Korea, because Google said (correctly) that it was an unacceptable a priori restriction on freedom of expression? I do. A pity that Google seems to have forgotten it.

"We have a bias in favor of people's right to free expression in everything we do. We are driven by a belief that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. We believe that it is important for free expression that people have the right to remain anonymous if they choose." -- Rachel Whetstone, Google Vice President of Global Communications & Public Affairs, April 2009

South Korea is abolishing that requirement, by the way. Apparently, they have decided that it is too great a threat to privacy.

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