Since Google+ was launched over six months ago, Google has only allowed users to create accounts using their real names. The Electronic Freedom Frontier and others have pointed out that allowing users to create pseudonyms for their accounts is a way to ensure freedom of expression for those who write online about controversial topics for which they could face political and legal retribution. In light of this, Google announced a change to its real names policy yesterday and said that it will allow users to use “alternate names.”
Google+ Allows Nicknames and Pseudonyms That Google Says Are “Established”
Google Product Vice President Bradley Horowitz explained the two new changes on Google+: First, users can now go to their profile and add a “nickname,” which will appear in the middle of their name or after it (so I could be, to use my Twitter account handle, “Kristina autismvox Chew” or “Kristina Chew autismvox”).
Second, users who wish to use an “established pseudonym” (i.e., +Madonna) instead of their real, actual name can do so provided that they submit certain documentation such as a scanned copy of their driver’s license or “proof of an established identity online with a meaningful following.” According to a post in Mashable, Google says that all such information — which one might not exactly want to just send off without knowing exactly who is inspecting it — will be destroyed once an account has been verified.
You get a different kind of community when people are known as Mary Smith than when they are known as captaincrunch42, and for a social product in particular we decided that the first kind of community is the one we want to build. In order to do that, we want to establish a general norm that the names you put in to the system should be names, not handles.
But the new policy falls short of truly allowing for pseudonyms, Violet Blue writes. What Google is allowing for most users is a nickname and not much more.
Google’s Real Names Policy and China’s Real Names Regulations
Furthermore, Google has its own logic for what it deems to be an “established pseudonym.” You have to be so “well-known under this handle that it would be bizarre” not to let you join Google+ with anything but this name, according to Zunger.
Epeus’ epigone says that Google+ has an algorithm that decides “what is a name and what isn’t. ….You have to pass as normal, like call centre workers forced to learn to sound American.” Google is the arbiter of what is “normal” here, that is. The new real names policy only “encourage[s] fakers” while it “discourage[s] those who need a pseudonym for good reasons.”
For many of us, these issues of the #nymwars are not of the greatest concern; our preference for not using our actual name as a username may just because we like using some silly nickname or (on a more serious note) for reasons of privacy. Violet Blue points out that Google’s announcement about its real names policy has occurred at just the same time as the Chinese government has been seeking to expand regulation of real names:
Like Google Plus, China’s cyber authorities want to attempt to enforce online accountability, by requiring and tying user accounts to real names, especially within social networks.
Also like G+, microbloggers and social site users in China will be forced to verify their accounts with official ID under the regulation.
In China, the requirement that users must use their real names to sign up for microblogging and other sites could mean that those who wish to discuss sensitive topics online (such as the government’s cover-up of a high speed rail crash last summer) could be far less likely to do so.
Should we not be a bit concerned, or even alarmed, that Google is adopting policies that have similarities to the Chinese government where, for retweeting an activist message, a woman was sentenced last year to one year in a labor camp?
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