Google should have recognized that the similarity between its Google+ name policy and the Internet usage policies favored by authoritarian regimes represents a problem.
The company's recently launched social network requires that users sign up under the name by which they're referred to in real life.
But not only is this maddeningly vague definition inconsistently applied, as has been demonstrated by individuals with unusual names like Stilgherrian and Violet Blue, it is poorly thought out. Some even suggest it is evil.
No, not evil on the scale of mayhem and physical harm. Evil as Google meant it in its unofficial motto, "Don't be evil." Evil with a small "e."
Google, like Facebook before it, offers a social network that doubles as a surveillance network.
Google maintains that it has only users' best interests at heart. But the company is doing as much harm as good by insisting on such an inflexible policy. It is depriving users of the opportunity to define their own level of comfort with online identity.
Google's legitimate interest in defining Google+ names extends to the aesthetic--insisting on a standard set of alpha-numeric characters--and the protective--insisting on non-offensive names. But Google should not be forcing users to participate in its social network under such inflexible terms.
The Google+ user should be able to choose to interact under his or her legal name, a pseudonym, or anonymously.
And in turn, other users of Google+ should be able to determine whether they want to see content generated by identified, pseudonymous, or anonymous users.
These decisions are not Google's business. Yet Google and its peers have made identity their business. Identity has become important because Facebook and the social gaming industry have proven that it appeals to the mass market audience.
Real names turn the hostile Internet into a friendlier place, like Disney World or the social gaming world, where people feel safe enough to pay for virtual seed to grow crops. This is a business that Google covets, as its newly launched Google+ Games section suggests. The focus on identity is not directly about marketing--a cookie ID number works as well as a real name. Rather, it's about building an environment that's minimally hostile to marketing and about making it easy for friends to find one another.
Identity is also essential for accountability. And therein lies the problem. By denying its users the ability to operate pseudonymously, Google is making Google+ users accountable to perceptions derived from online postings, activities, and associations. Accountability of this sort has consequences:
Google's Policy Exposes Users To Potential Harassment And Persecution
Unless Google's intent is for Google+ to be filled with banal, uncontroversial chatter, Google+ users can be expected say things that generate controversy. When there's legitimate cause to identify these people, existing legal processes will suffice to keep order. But Google's policy goes beyond what's necessary. It enables anyone with an axe to grind to target a Google+ user for harassment.
Google's Policy Stifles The Free Exchange Of Ideas
When people fear that their posts or profiles may be misconstrued or held against them, they won't speak freely. Anonymous and pseudonymous speech have a long, noble tradition in the history of American democracy. Google's lack of tolerance for this tradition is disappointing, to put it mildly.
Google's Policy Is Not Being Enforced Fairly
There's no shortage of reports of problems with the way Google has enforced its policy. It's hardly surprising. Names, and how people use them, vary and aren't going to fit into Google's box.
And it will get worse when Google allows businesses to participate: Businesses are pseudonymous entities in that their names aren't necessarily tied to the individual or individuals operating the business. Yet, a business can be formed by an individual, often without disclosing the identity of those involved in the business.
This is what's going to happen: Those seeking to use pseudonyms on Google+ will file fictitious name statements, or form some business entity, in order to use Google+ under a name that's not their own. Google should give up now, before it gets worse.
Google's Policy Denies Privacy
It's already well-established that employers and lawyers trawl through social networks. Without pseudonyms, the activities of Google+ users can more easily be correlated, on and off Google+. There are plenty of reasons that people may wish aspects of their lives to remain separate.
Google says it takes user privacy very seriously. Type "define: privacy" into Google and you get this: "The state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people." One could argue that social networks are inherently antithetical to privacy, but there's no good reason that Google couldn't offer both a social network and the limited privacy of a pseudonym.
Google Supports Pseudonyms Elsewhere
Google has already allowed pseudonyms with other services, like YouTube. Were the company to devote some of its considerable resources to improving comment filtering options, it would have quality discussion there too.
If Google really cares about its users--and projects like its Data Liberation Front suggest it does--then the company should revise its policy to be more tolerant of pseudonyms and revise its technology to give users the ability to block content by varying levels of identity. Google+ users, not Google, should setting the parameters for interaction.
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