Google+ and the loss of online anonymity


Updated: As Google rolls out its Google+ social network, it is struggling with the same questions about identity that have caused problems for Facebook in the past: namely, how much should it force people to use their “real” names? The web giant has been disabling user accounts on Google+ for a variety of reasons over the past few weeks, but it has caused an outcry from many who feel it is being too strict in some cases and not enough in others. The big issue at the root of this battle, as we have pointed out before, is that in many cases anonymity (and pseudonymity) has real value. Are we losing that as a result of Google and Facebook’s real-name obsession?

Those who have seen their accounts suspended in the recent crackdown by Google+ include some prominent members of the hacker community, including one programmer who goes by the single name “Skud,” as well as one well-known iPhone developer who’s usual moniker is “MuscleNerd.” According to some reports, certain users have had their accounts restored despite the use of obvious pseudonyms, including Limor Fried — also known as Lady Ada of Adafruit Industries, who was recently profiled in Wired magazine, according to ZDNet writer Violet Blue (also a pseudonym Note: Violet Blue is not a pseudonym).

Like wearing a shirt in a restaurant?

Google senior vice-president Vic Gundotra, the man who is in charge of Google’s social efforts, said in response to a post by blogger Robert Scoble that Google doesn’t necessarily want to force people to use only their legally given names — he says the web company is fine with users setting up accounts under “commonly used” names, although it’s not clear how this is defined. This would presumably cover celebrity users like 50 Cent or Lady Gaga (Gundotra noted that even he doesn’t use his legal name on Google+). The Google executive said he simply wants to maintain a “positive tone” on the network, and compared it to requiring people to wear shirts in a restaurant.

While this is an appealing metaphor, it’s not as simple as that, unfortunately. In a lot of ways, identity is like the “third rail” of online services — a hugely charged issue that splits many online communities down the middle and causes vociferous debate on both sides — and there simply are no easy answers. While the internet used to be the place where no one knew if you were a dog, now services like Google not only want to know whether you’re a dog, they want to see your papers too.

As observers such as Jillian York of Global Voices Online have described, a real-name policy like the one that Facebook tries to enforce and Google has adopted can have real consequences for dissidents in countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. If they try to use these social tools to rally support and plan activities, they run the risk of either using their real names and being tracked down and targeted by the authorities, or using pseudonyms and then finding that their accounts have been blocked or deleted without notice.

Real-name policies have negative consequences

It’s not just dissidents in repressive countries either — gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy groups have also noted that many users may wish to go by pseudonyms when they are online for personal reasons. Another commenter on a post about the issue noted that he works in law enforcement, and could be targeted by criminals if he uses his real name, while someone else said that she has been the victim if sexual abuse and is worried about her family members being able to track her down.

Christopher Poole, the founder of the 4chan community, gave an eloquent TED presentation last year (embedded below) in which he argued that anonymity has very real benefits online, and that we would be wise to consider those before we switch to exclusively “real name” policies. And as we’ve pointed out before, many of these arguments also apply to comments on news stories and forums: many people believe that requiring real names will solve the problems of trolls and bad behavior, but they don’t — and that policy can have negative consequences in terms of suppressing dialogue about important topics.

As a number of users have pointed out, Google and Facebook aren’t just focused on requiring real names because they want to improve behavior on their networks — there is also a very real interest on their part in being able to build a profile of a user for advertising and marketing purposes as well. And more than one user of Google+ has raised concerns that Google’s crackdown on pseudonyms or fake names has apparently resulted in users being blocked from using any of Google’s various services, including email, because their profile is tied to all of the company’s other products.

At this point, the company seems to be trying to find a happy medium between blocking or disabling user accounts that don’t belong to actual human beings — or are set up to spam or otherwise cause problems for users of the service — and allowing those who routinely employ “persistent pseudonyms” to continue being members of Google+. But when we’re talking about a service that has grown to 20 million users in less than a month, that’s going to be a difficult and potentially even impossible task. And even if Google is successful for the most part, as Facebook has been, what will we as a society lose because of this focus on eradicating anonymity?

Update: Brad Horowitz, the VP of product at Google, has posted a statement about the company’s real-name policies with respect to Google+, in which he says that the web giant is trying to be better about notifying users whose names don’t meet the requirements and giving them a chance to change them. The Google VP also says that there are other fields in the profile that can be used for nicknames, and that no user would ever lose access to all of their other Google services just because their name didn’t meet the specifications. Horowitz adds that Google+ is still in development and that the company hopes to build in support for a variety of different use cases and accounts.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kat B Photography and Richard Engel of NBC

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