Last month, Google rolled out its new “Google+” social networking platform, and it enjoyed an enthusiastic reception among metaverse residents, tech bloggers, and others. Google+’s “Circles” feature, which gives you more fine-grained control over who you share with, seemed to be an indication that Google+ would be more privacy-conscious than its established competitor, Facebook.
Unfortunately, the appeal of Google+ quickly wore off, as it became apparent that Google was suspending accounts judged to be using a pseudonym or other “not real” name. The first highly-visible case among the Second Life crowd was Opensource Obscure being suspended, but hundreds more Second Life users were suspended within a week. And it wasn’t just Second Life residents: pseudonymous accounts of all types were being suspended en masse, along with accounts representing companies and organizations. Official statements from Google employees confirmed that Google+ users are required to use what Google calls “common names” or “real names”.
The usual rationale of real-name-only policies, like Blizzard Entertainment’s controversial Real ID system, is that forcing people to use their real names will promote more civil discourse. The reasoning is that people will think twice about what they post, since everything they say can be traced to their real-world identity. Personally, I’m rather skeptical that such a policy actually makes people behave more civilly, given how casually many Facebook users post homophobic slurs and bilious attacks under their real names.
But it’s true that the policy will change the tenor of discourse by making certain people think twice about posting anything that can be traced back to them. For instance, you probably won’t have as many posts from political activists, corporate whistleblowers (or even just people wanting to vent about their boss), LGBT individuals, abuse victims, ethnic minorities, practitioners of “alternative lifestyles”, or anyone else who might face real-world repercussions for expressing their views online, or who might be subject to online harrassment because of their real-world names. Google seems to have no qualms about excluding these people. Their latest video statement expresses a simple sentiment: show everyone your real name, or get out.
As it turns out, though, Google’s claimed justification for the policy is not so much that it make you behave more civilly, but rather that it will make you easier to
stalk “connect with”:
Google+ makes connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world. Because of this, it’s important to use your common name so that the people you want to connect with can find you. Your common name is the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, any of these would be acceptable.
From that description, I’d reason that it was perfectly okay for me to have a profile under my pseudonym, Jacek Antonelli. After all, I have many more friends and co-workers who know me by that name than by my legal name. This blog, written entirely pseudonymously, gets thousands of times more views than the blog I write under my legal name. My most well-known creative contributions to society, such as the Imprudence Viewer, were published pseudonymously. It’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of people who know me (or know of me), know me by my pseudonym.
But, as blogger Skud has discovered, Google won’t let you use a pseudonym even if that is how you are most commonly known. Although, there is apparently an unstated exception to that rule: if you are a famous celebrity like Lady Gaga or 50 Cent, you’re allowed to use your stage name. But if you’re just a writer or technologist known by your pen name to your friends, co-workers, and thousands of readers, that’s not good enough.
Actually, it’s not just pseudonymous accounts that have been suspended. Blake Ross, co-founder of Firefox, now working at Facebook, was briefly suspended despite using his legal name. Once the news came out, Ross’s account was quickly restored. Others have not been so fortunate, and their accounts remain suspended, even after providing Google with legitimate government identification showing that their Google+ profile name matches their legal name.
Other users have been put on the chopping block for using quotation marks or other punctuation (‘Charles “Chuck” Jones Jr.’ would not be an acceptable name), numbers (even if they are part of your legal name), and sometimes even just non-English glyphs. All these are apparently considered suspicious by Google’s automated software, making your profile more likely to come up for review.
Meanwhile, at least one inquisitive person has used an obviously fake ID to convince Google to suspend an account, then used another obviously fake ID to convince them to reactivate it. So the policy may be founded on specious reasoning, it may stifle free speech, and it may be harmful to legitimate users… but at least it will be ineffective at stopping abuse!
As if the policy itself and its inconsistent enforcement weren’t disturbing enough, the consequences of being suspended are rather startling: all public sign of your account just vanishes. Your profile page, your posts, your replies to other people’s posts, are all hidden. All mentions of you are even redacted from other people’s posts, your name replaced with asterisks. Your account and activities are effectively erased from history.
What’s worse, being suspended doesn’t affect only your Google+ account. As Doctor Popular found out the hard way, it also locks you out of all other services that use the new Google Profiles system. Currently, Google Profiles is tied into Google+, Google Reader, Buzz, Picasa, and a few others. I would be very surprised if Google doesn’t also tie it into Gmail, Gtalk, Google Docs, YouTube, Blogger, etc. within a year or two.
So, if you use any of these Google services, you might one day find yourself completely locked out of years worth of your digital life, just because you are suspected of violating a policy that is fundamentally misguided and enforced arbitrarily and inconsistently.
That’s a pretty scary thought.
Scary enough, in fact, that I am extricating myself from all Google services, for both my pseudonymous and real-world identities. I have deleted my Google+ account so that I’m less likely to be targetted, and I’ve backed up as much data as I can. It will be a lot of work even to find suitable replacements, let alone migrate all my data, email, contacts, subscriptions, and so forth. But, it would be insane to rely on any Google services anymore, having seen how easily anyone — even people following the rules — can be suspended.
- “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power – dana boyd | apophenia
- Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy? – Geek Feminism Wiki
- My Name Is Me
- Why Facebook and Google’s Concept of ‘Real Names’ Is Revolutionary – The Atlantic
- The Cases For and Against Google+’s Real-Name Policy – The Atlantic Wire
- A Case for Pseudonyms – EFF
- Tateru Nino has written extensively about the issue, exploring it from a variety of perspectives.
- What’s Really Behind The Facebook/Google Real Name Debate? – All Things D
- Google+ Identity Crisis: What’s at Stake With Real Names and Privacy – Wired
- Google+ requires you to use your “real” name – Sai
- Google’s Double-Plus Real Names – Signifying Media
- “I’m Your Biggest Fan, I’ll Follow You Until You Love Me” – Border House
- Searching Twitter for #nymwars, #realnames, or #plusgate reveals a lively debate over the issue.