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."
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