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Google + 'Real Names' Policy Spawns Organized Online Resistance

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, August 4 2011

and Becky Kazansky

Google's latest foray into social networking, Google +, has created more controversy than ever — and the company is confronting a wave of online activism over its insistence that users wear their real names when they walk through the Google + front door.

If you're late to this controversy, The Guardian's Jemima Kiss has a good look at the state of play. On her own blog, danah boyd frames it from the view of folks who want the right to their pseudonyms: Google invited a tech-heavy crowd to be the first ones to use their service, including a solid contingent of people from the pre-Facebook Internet, where handles were far more common than real names. Before Michael Arrington's TechCrunch or even Ars Technica, remember, there was — and is — Slashdot, run by a man who is still best known as CmdrTaco.

Kiss and boyd point us to this post, the results of a survey asking folks why they want to use a pseudonym online. Most respondents are using the name most people know them by, the author — who goes by Kirrilly Skud — reports. Folks who don't want to use their real name give a litany of reasons, some of which include a history with stalking, harassment, rape or other sexual violence; their real names are too common; they want to participate in the Internet's life of the mind, but don't want to offend friends who would read their views and disagree. Another site, my.nameis.me, provides a platform for supporters of pseudonymy to explain their position. Among the participants there is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York, who has already made the case for the ability of people to use social networking tools while masked by a pseudonym. York observes that a Facebook group at the nexus of the Egyptian uprising, "We Are All Khaled Said," was operated anonymously — by Google engineer Wael Ghonim, who was later found out and detained by Hosni Mubarak's forces.

"In order for people such as myself to freely participate in online communities, and provide needed, valuable discourse," writes another correspondent, sex workers' writes activist Jessica Land, on my.nameis.me. "We must feel safe, and pseudonyms are a vital part of that safety."

At her blog, boyd writes that Skud's findings and activism like my.nameis.me point to something she's already found in her research: Pseudonyms are a tool of the disadvantaged.

"'Real names' policies aren’t empowering," writes boyd, who does not capitalize her name and often uses a pseudonym on the web. "They’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness."

In an interview with O'Reilly's Alex Howard, Google engineer Joseph Smarr said that there are a lot of reasons — some technical, some social — for Google's approach to identity. The atmosphere Google wants to create on Google +, he said, is different from, say, YouTube, where there are some mechanisms for maintaining anonymity.

And he told Howard that there's an obligation on Google's part to not make any claim to the ability to protect a person's identity until the company can support that claim.

"It's not just enough to offer the ability to post under a pseudonymous identifier," Smarr said.

"We feel a real responsibility that if we're going to make the claim to people 'it's safe, you're not going to get outed,' then we really need to think through the architecture and make sure there aren't any loopholes where all of a sudden you get outed," he later added.

In a post on Google + last week, Google's Bradley Horowitz responded to widespread criticisms by promising to make the account signup process easier to understand. His suggestion is for folks who want to use nicknames to slot them into an "other names" category — which does not address the concerns of people like boyd, who are advocating that a Google-like service, especially one that caters to a tech-heavy crowd, should allow a pseudonym to be a person's primary identifier.

The network, Horowitz added, is still unfinished — but he didn't sound like he was backing away from the insistence on real names.

"Please don’t misconstrue the product as it exists today (< 4 weeks since entering Field Trial) as the 'end state,'" he wrote.

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