Thursday, August 04, 2011

Google+, naming, and privacy

Google+ is sporadically and inconsistently enforcing a "government name" policy, leading to many people whose online identities are not their government names being suspended or just leaving. Many participants in the debate seem not to distinguish between anonymity/creating a username to leave a single comment at a blog and persistent pseudonymity, which has very different causes and consequences, both for participants and for discourse. A good post on the subject, does Google+ hate women? Also see here.

skud, one of the high-profile victims of the ban, has launched, explaining the value of such identities online, not least for people at risk of losing their jobs, getting harassed, or suffering other adverse consequences from expressing their opinions or seeking information from others.

Though many have speculated that Google's real interest is in collecting ever more information useful in marketing, the public justification is that people behave better when they use their government names (though Google's policy actually doesn't (1) verify that you are indeed John Crichton, (2) accept many government names if they are unusual, or (3) deal with non-Western conventions, whether orthographical or otherwise, so the justification doesn't make much sense). Here, a founder of Dreamwidth explains why the "better behavior" argument is bunk.

I have tenure, and I'm pretty out as a fan under my government name, but a fannish autonym has real benefits for me anyway, and it's far more important for people who want to participate in public discussions but might suffer if their teachers, students, bosses, ex-spouses, etc. found them online. I sincerely hope Google gets this right, because--as skud points out--it's already affecting search results and other activities outside of Google+.


  1. I use my real name for the same reason Google requires it, but it was and is my choice. Not Google's. Who do they think they are? And by real name, I mean my family and given name. I object to it being called my government name; we have yet not descended quite that far into police state territory.

  2. Tim, once you're suspended, Google asks you to provide government-issued ID, so I think government name makes some sense here, though they're being pretty inconsistent. Dave Fagundes has a great article about derby girls, who use the term "government name" to distinguish their non-derby names from their performing names.

  3. We really do need a good comment about privacy, IMO - I didn't have time to make the case in mine, but I think there's a compelling argument that the new state of affairs requires more pseuds, not fewer. With employers, ministers, and exes googling you, and even just for the right to have leisure time for which you will not be judged, pseuds are KEY. If this were a debate about having to make available in a public database every library book that you read or magazine you subscribed to, it might be clearer--but this is worse, because that's just a record of your inputs; this is a record also of your output, not to mentioned that much online interaction is time and date stamped.

  4. That's a great point, Francesca--and the companies are trying to make it about inputs as well as outputs as fast as they can. Kindle just offered to let me post on Facebook or Twitter when I came across a passage I wanted to highlight, and I would've done it too if it hadn't required me to link IDs I don't really want linked.