As someone who uses pseudonyms on the internet and who uses Google products fairly heavily, I’ve been following the Google+ realname policy with interest, especially given Facebook’s increasing insistence that everyone loves to share! and resetting the privacy defaults every two days without notifying users – an alternative would be welcome, but only if it’s less creepy.

So I did what any anal retentive internet pedant would do and read Google’s policy about realnames on G+.

From Google’s Privacy Center:

We have five privacy principles that describe how we approach privacy and user information across all of our products:

  1. Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

Nothing about realnames, right? So I went to the page about G+ specifically, which also had nothing about the realnames policy, and then the tab for User Content and Conduct Policy, which states

13. Display Name

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

I must say that Google has been decent at preventing spam, to the point where most of the spam that gets into my email is in languages I don’t recognize offhand. However, I’m not really sure what the issue is with fake profiles and whether Google is making any distinction about fakes versus established pseudonyms, especially with their assumption that you could be known as certain variations on your legal name but not that you might have a nickname or handle that you were better known by.

The problem is that I think a realnames policy is inconsistent with a policy that respects privacy. I think a meaningful user choice to protect privacy would first and foremost be a choice of what name you were known by.

People take pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, but I’m going to boil them down to as few reasons as possible. First, people take pseudonyms for safety reasons. Stalkers, rape survivors, death threats, being able to keep a job, avoiding conflict with relatives who have different political views, not being able to come out of the closet, being polyamorous… people who have something to lose if certain aspects of their lives are more widely known. There’s a good outline of some of those concerns here and here.

Second, people use pseudonyms professionally. Mark Twain, James Tiptree Jr., Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Manson, Dr. Seuss, George Orwell. Artists, writers, actors, anyone who does any kind of sex or naked work, which includes things like nude modeling for art classes.

Molly Crabapple has some choice words on the subject up on my name is me, where she talks about how she has built her identity under this pseudonym and this name is how she is known in her career.

Why shouldn’t she use the name she actually uses? If she thinks the best name for her to use is a pseudonym, why should Google say otherwise?

Similarly, Doctor Popular, who got his account shut down because G+ didn’t like his name:

When I first filed my appeal you told me that my name violated Google+’s Terms Of Services, which simply stated that I needed to “use the name that I commonly go by in daily life”, so I responded with newspaper articles (Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, etc) and statements from past employers that verified my daily name (or common law name) has been “Doctor Popular” for more than 12 years. Despite all this evidence, your support staff told me the only way to regain access to my accounts was to send in a copy of my government issued ID.

It’s one thing to shut people off from using G+ for violating the TOS, but cutting them off from other services and refusing to take the evidence of their identities is harsh to the point of being absurd and Kafka-esque.

The third reason is that pseudonyms are fun, and sometimes you want a new name and sometimes you want to do something fun that you want to insulate from the rest of your life. Most of the fun that people get up to on the internet is pretty harmless, but some of it has a stigma attached that maybe you’d like to avoid having to deal with at work or with your family not because it would be dangerous or you’re doing something wrong but just because sometimes you want some privacy. Maybe you’re a Harry Potter fan fiction writer or a recovering alcoholic or you model for art classes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s not illegal and it doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s normal to want to talk to other people who share your interests, but probably you don’t want to tell everyone in your life about it.

And this is where the lie of the transparent society comes in: the idea that people who are doing nothing wrong have nothing to be concerned about.

There’s a huge difference between not having concerns about the repercussions of wrongful actions or a particular wrongful action and just wanting some privacy. I’m not doing anything wrong when I poop, but I sure do like to do it alone. Sometimes it’s good to have a little space to do your thing, whether that’s talking to other people who love My Little Ponies as much as you do or trying to unionize at Starbucks because you’re sick of how they treat you or getting some support because you’re a gay teenager in Anoka, Minnesota and you can’t tell anyone.

You’re not doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t face consequences for being different. Danah Boyd sums this up well:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.

Why should Google have authority over what I’m called? Aren’t I in a better position to know what name I use and to make appropriate decisions about that?

Some of the higher-ups at Google think that people want to see realnames, but so what? Why should someone else’s desire to see my real name trump my desire to go by whatever name I choose, or to switch names in different forums? The EFF talks about Randi Zuckerberg’s desire to kill online privacy entirely essentially because of the greater internet fuckwad theory, which is a very negative take on an idea that Molly Crabapple illuminates well:

Anonymity online is an important protection for anyone who may receive persecution from their community- be they a Chinese dissident, a corporate whistle-blower, a trans-person, or someone with a sexual orientation or a physical condition that is marginalized.

Anonymity allows difficult truths to be said without persecution for the speaker. It allows honest discourse, self-determination, the free spread of information, and protest against repressive regimes.

Sounds like Randi Zuckerberg’s vision of the perfect internet is one where LinkedIn is the big social network, where we can all put up our photos of our most professional suits and possibly a carefully selected list of interests and no one ever chats or shares links because they’re busy being civil and professional.

Online dating would die.

As a note, LinkedIn is the only social networking service I know of that does not allow you to block individual users. The assumption is that everyone is behaving in a civil and professional manner, and they have been unresponsive to complaints that this is not in fact the case. This gives the lie to that realname structures will discourage bullying: pretending that we’re all being civil doesn’t make everyone’s behavior okay. It just makes it harder to hide from the bullies.

Realnames policies enforce existing hierarchies because people in power face few if any negative repercussions for the things they do and say. They have greater social freedom in general, and this is true on the internet the same way it is in the flesh, if not more so. Pseudonyms are a powerful equalizer and letting people determine what name they will be called is an important part of freedom of expression.

Conventions around naming are an element of the structure of discourse, and it’s more important than just your desire to be snapelover2000 rather than snapelover69. Forcing people to use names that are essentially assigned and checked by your government-issued ID is a stance on the ways this structure impacts people. Google can choose whether they want to support existing hierarchies of power and dominance, or whether they want to allow people to have room to challenge these structures to promote democracy and egalitarianism.

When Google tells me that I can only be who my driver’s license says I am, I can only be my official self that I want my parents and my boss to see. Making the whole internet a realname network would mean I would have to kill most of my personal projects, and having Google require this is very serious because the reach of Google is so broad.

The first step in a civil discourse is allowing people to introduce and identify themselves.

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