Why Google+'s 'real name' policy is so flawed

A mere four weeks after it launched, the shine is already coming off Google+, Google’s new social networking service. Over the last few days, Google+ has been suspending the accounts of users it suspects of contravening its real name policy. But many feel this policy is misguided and may even be dangerous.

Software developer Skud was one early victim of Google+’s scorched earth names policy. Skud’s given name is Kirrily Robert, but as she explains on her website, almost no one calls her that. ‘Skud’ is how she is introduced at conferences, it’s what her colleagues and friends call her, and it’s even the name she uses for her corporate email, including at Google where she worked until recently.

Google discussed in February the three different ways people can create an identity online: unidentified, pseudonymous, identified. But it has decided, that for Google+ (which is tightly tied to Google Profiles), only real names will do.

 Why Google+s real name policy is so flawed

Screenshot of Google+ landing page.

Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they are checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.

Also affected was Limor “Ladyada” Fried, open source hardware hacker who was recently featured on the cover of Wired. It seems that her name contravened Google+’s policy that “numbers, symbols, or obscure punctuation might not be allowed”.

After that, the reports came thick and fast. Blogger AV Flox; rapper Doctor Popular; Ian/epredator Hughes; Bernard (Ben) Tremblay; Antimatter15, who created a Chrome plug-in to help users manage Google+ more easily; Bug Girl; Ping, another Googler, full name Ka-Ping Yee; and Sai, whose account suspended because he only has one name. Many more less well-known users will also have been affected and, although some accounts have now been reinstated, many remain in limbo.

Users are angry, in part, because Google’s rules have been applied inconsistently. Whilst Limor “Ladyaday” Fried was suspended for the use of quotation marks, Google employee Brian "Fitz" Fitzpatrick appears to have been unaffected. Doctor Popular was censured, but 50 Cent and countless Lady Gagas were not. Sai has been reinstated, Skud has not.

The effects of suspension have also been inconsistent. Some people have found that they simply no longer exist on Google+, but others have discovered themselves completely unable to access their Gmail account or Google Docs. For many who use Gmail as their primary email account, this is not just distressing but also potentially disastrous if they use Google services for business purposes. The problem is exacerbated by an opaque appeals process and lack of communication from Google.

But there is a much deeper problem, which is that names are not simple. They are not constant, unique identifiers. Danny O’Brien lists some common falsehoods about names:

[That] people’s names are assigned at birth; people’s names won’t contain any well-known English swearwords; and there is one way to spell someone’s name. But perhaps the most prevalent misconception that programmers cling to about names is that you have a single definitive name that stands above all the others – and that single name matches your legal identity.

Google also prohibits names that mix languages, but the idea that you have one name and that it’s in one language is manifestly wrong, as illustrated by CopyLion on the Gmail Help Forum

Hong Kong is a former British Colony and we use English names and nicknames far more than Chinese names and Pinyin of that.
How Hong Kong people's name on their ID card typically looks like is like this:
CHAN, Tai Man

But even within the English-speaking world, Google seems not to realise that what looks like a real name in one culture may not in another. Facebook also has a strict real name policy, and it too has caused problems, as O’Brien describes:

Chinese journalist Michael Anti, […] was thrown off [Facebook] for refusing to change his account name from that of his nom de plume to that of his birth name. Or Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, whose name was initially discarded by Facebook for being obviously fraudulent. Native American author Owl Goingback was blocked from joining Facebook, and Robin Kills The Enemy was suspended and had to scan in identity documents to prove her name.

Forcing people to use a ‘real name’ instead of the name with which they are currently going by has much deeper ramifications than simply annoying a few early adopters. Not only does it cut to the heart of our personal identity, it also ignores the fact that for many people, identity and pseudonymity is a matter of life and death. The woman being stalked by a violent ex, the gay or lesbian living in an intolerant community, the activist living under the threat of arrest. We can all imagine scenarios where using a real name would endanger life and limb.

But even on a more prosaic level, Google has got it wrong. It claims that it wants to ensure that users know that there is “someone real behind the profile they’re checking out”, but in a world where identity is fluid, the concept of the ‘real name’ is meaningless. People who consistently use a pseudonym have an identity as real and as someone who uses their given name. And even official names change over time, especially for women who may change names when they get married or divorced. How many people would know that Suw Charman and Susan Anderson are the same person? Yet these are both legally valid names for me and I have the paperwork to prove either identity.

Google is skating on thin ice by so forcefully implementing this horribly flawed policy. But if there’s one thing early adopters are good at, it’s ironing out bugs in both code and policy. And that is exactly what they are trying to do: Skud is gathering information from people whose accounts have been suspended and Cory Albrecht has started a petition calling for Google to change its policy. If Google has any sense, they will remove their real name policy and judge problem accounts based on the user’s behaviour, not on some string of arbitrary characters that we call a ‘name’.

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Updated Date: Aug 03, 2011 20:34:19 IST