Google is right to demand people use real names

Google  logo 200 pixGoogle, don't cow before riffraff demanding that you allow Google Plusers to use pseudonyms or to be anonymous. The policy of using real names is sensible and best approach long term.

While I was at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend, there was a big row about suspended Google+ accounts -- so I'm playing catch up on this one. Well, thank you, Google! I mean that without the slightest hint of sarcasm. That's a sincere thank you.

The account deletions came suddenly over the weekend and caused a huge stink among the so-called tech elite and those feeling privileged enough to be using Google+. Google started enforcing a community-standards policy related to G+, which is more fundamentally about Google Profiles. As explained in this Google support 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're checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life".

G+ is one of several services requiring a Google Profile, and the search and information giant has been in process of imposing several policy changes. For example, Google has warned that all Profiles must be public and private ones will be deleted come July 31st. In that context, it's not surprising that Google would also start enforcing the real names policy, which also discourages use of "unusual characters in your name", and is consistent with Profiles being public. By the way, not all Google services require Profiles -- Blogger and Gmail among them.

A Sensible Policy

If Google suspended your Google Profile and therefore G+ account, and it was collateral damage, please accept my apologies for reveling over your misery. Google's policy of real people associated with accounts is a sensible one. Time to enforce such policy is now, while the service is invite-only and restricted to people 18 or older. It's about time somebody put the kibosh on anonymous accounts and started making people using the web to be identifiable and therefore more accountable for their behavior. The only problem I really see is enforcement. Google+ is growing so fast -- and that's while invite-only -- account monitoring could take an army of  people.

I strongly disagree with calls that Google "restore accounts that were suspended for pseudonymity, so that all of our friends can participate, under their chosen identities and with respect for their privacy". Absolutely not. Google has acted wisely here. There may be some marketing damage but that will pass.

There's even a petition (with less than 1,000 signatures as I write, demanding that Google "allow pseudonyms": "We deserve to be able to interact on-line and to share or nor share as much as we choose, as much as we are comfortable with. For some of us that means using a pseudonym to protect our identities from those who are intolerant of who we are or what we do. I want that anonymity available for my friends that need it, and I want it available to me if I ever need it".

There are plenty of other places where people can interact anonymously if they want. Go to one of those services, or take advantage of the privacy controls Google+ provides. I see it like this: There are plenty more places where people can interact anonymously than there are places where they must be identified. There's an underserved majority of people who want to know who they are engaging with, want to build relationships with people they can identify. Google+ could be that place.

Making Hard Decisions

Uber-geek Rober Scoble spoke with the vacationing Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of Google engineering, about the weekend Profile suspensions. Scoble writes:

[Gundotra] says he is making some tough choices and that he will be judged over time how those choices turn out. He says that he is trying to make sure a positive tone gets set here. Like when a restaurant doesn't allow people who aren't wearing shirts to enter.

He says it isn't about real names. He says he isn't using his legal name here. He says, instead, it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names, like 'god' or worse.

He says they have made some mistakes while doing the first pass at this and they are learning. He also says the team will change how they communicate with people. IE, let them know what they are doing wrong, etc. I pushed him to make more of the changes, like give us a good appeals process, etc.

He also says they are working on ways to handle pseudonyms, but that will be a while before the team can turn on those features (everyone is working hard on a raft of different things and can't just react overnight to community needs).
After running through his reasoning, mostly to have a nicer, more personal, community, I feel even stronger that Google is on the right track here even though I feel they weren't fair or smart in how they spun up these new rules, but Vic convinced me to hang in there and watch their decisions over the next few weeks.

Google Protects You

I see some very good reasons why Google shouldn't allow any users to obscure their identities in Profiles and therefore on G+:

1. Security. Google has plenty of bad experiences with anonymous accounts. Cybercriminals have long used anonymous Blogger accounts as part of phishing nets. Google+ could be similarly used and perhaps be more dangerous because of its design. People follow you to start with -- they're not approved as friends first. Twitter is lesson there -- where spammers use the service by following people and tweeting offers or even links to phishing or malware sites.

If for no other reason than preventing Google+ from becoming a platform for cybercriminals, there should be no anonymous users on the service. Hey, Google, while you're at it, clean up Blogger, too, start by compelling all blogs be tied to a Google Profile. Real people. Real bloggers. Real accounts.

Today, ZDNet blogger Violet Blue contends that "Pseudonymity is not anonymity. Significant online communities that thrive with both anonymous and pseudonymous accounts include Reddit and Hacker News". Firstly, the two examples are more niche communities where anonymity is part of the service provided; they're not applicable examples. The differences between pseudonymity and anonymity aren't defined enough for an enforceable policy that would protect the privacy and security of the larger community of users. Google can clearly enforce a community policy around real names, which is more likely to prevent accidental account suspensions than one where community managers could misjudge and whack legitimate users with pseudonyms. Look at the negative buzz generated this weekend. That's example enough why allowing pseudonyms would be bad policy.

2. Community. Google+ is clearly designed to be a better social network, one where users have more control over their interactions -- and in a manner more like how they engage people in the real world. Relationships are all about identity. You see the person, and can identify them again by their appearance if by nothing else. Even if someone is new to you and gives a false name, you still have seen them. That's not the case online, where anyone can pretend to be anyone. If the service really is supposed to be more like real world interactions, people should be identified. Such an approach also will build trust, which should foster communities -- eh, Circles -- of people to spread out.

3. Google+ for Business. Google is gearing up to launch a G+ business service sometime very soon. Businesses want identity, for numerous reasons. Identity is good for targeting products to new customers and better serving existing ones. Then there are issues of trust and security. Internet trolls can tarnish brands, and what business wants to risk plunking down on the same Net neighborhood as cybercriminals?

 4. Trolls. There is a minority of Internet trolls that spoil community experience for everyone. Look how anonymous commenters often pollute the dialog. The Google petition argues that "deleting accounts on services like Google+ just because they have a pseudonym is down-right intolerant". More intolerant is enabling trolls to harass and demean others while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

Steven Vaughan-Nichols and I used to work together at eWeek, where we often wrote point-counterpoint commentaries. We're in agreement, for a change. In yesterday's ZDNet post "What was Google thinking?" he writes: "I can see Google's point...You know what? For the most part this all makes sense to me. While anonymity can be vital for some individuals all too often it's used to simply hide mean-spirited trolls that make so many online communities utterly distasteful". Too bad he backtracks later writing: "I don't think people should be required to use their real names". So we disagree after all.

I'll wrap up by asking for your reaction. Well?

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