Google+ and the right to use an alias

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 25, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't thought much about the use of pseudonyms online. At times, I use "nanday" -- the species of parrots I live with -- but a pseudonym has never really been an option for most of my online presence, because, rightly or wrongly, editors assume that my name has some value on an article. So far as I had thought, pseudonyms seemed a childish remnant from the early days of the web. But the growing complaints about Google+'s anti-pseudonym policy have made me reverse my thinking.

The matter came to a head a few days ago, when Google+, the new social networking site, suddenly started deleting or limiting accounts for violating its term of its conduct policy.

Many -- possibly most -- of these actions appear to have been for using a pseudonym, contrary to the conduct policy's declaration, "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 had been pleased when I originally saw these terms, thinking that they would allow people with long-standing pseudonyms or who regular use names that don’t match their state-issued ID," blogs feminist and free culture advocate Skud, who is only occasionally known by her legal name, Kirrily Robert. Yet, like others, Skud recently found her access to Google+ limited -- despite the fact that, until a few days ago, she was a Google employee herself, where her fellow employees did, in fact, refer to her by her preferred alias.

Skud, who has written in favor of pseudonyms before, admits in a later blog that she has deliberately pushed the issue in order "to help highlight the problems with the policy, and secondly, to test out and document the processes around it."

As Skud points out, Google's reaction has been inconsistent, with some people like her still having read-only access to her account while others appear to have had their accounts suspended altogether. Moreover, since Google is only telling people that they have breached the terms of service, it is impossible to be sure of why Google is taking action, although she is trying to gather more definite information. Nor does Google have any intermediate step of sending a warning before taking any action on accounts.

In other words, Google appears to be reacting in an unorganized way, with no stated policy to guide employees in handling such matters. Often, the actions of its employee seem to contradict the stated policy, and what happens to a given account might very well depend on who handles it.

Why Use a Pseudonym?

Google's policy is especially ironic, given the corporation's recent public support for its former employee Wael Ghonim, whose role in protests against the Egyptian government depended partly on his use of a pseudonym on Facebook.

However, the strangest thing about Google's policy is not just the gap between its written statement and the actions of its employees (after all, the gap between "Chuck" or "Junior" and "Skud" is not so very great), but the weakness of the rationale behind it.

While it is true that many trolls are anonymous, in this day of free accounts like Gmail's, registering a plausible-sounding pseudonym is as easy as registering a legal name. The same goes for spammers, as a look through your Trash folder at the end of a day can easily prove.

Perhaps those who never use a pseudonym might think about the issue as many do about privacy: If you are doing nothing wrong, then why do you need privacy or a pseudonym?

Well, to start with, under the law of the United States and many other countries, using an alias is completely legal so long as you are not using it to commit fraud. A few other restrictions apply in many jurisdictions -- for instance, you generally can't use an alias to cause confusion between you and a celebrity, or use an obscene or racist name. However, generally speaking, even common law names (ones that are not officially registered, but are widely used) take on a certain legal acceptance, just as a common law relationship assumes many of the privileges and obligations of a registered marriage.

Even more importantly, the right to use a pseudonym can be a protection for a surprisingly wide variety of people. A recent article begun by Skud on the Geek Feminism wiki entitled "Who Is Harmed by a 'Real Name' Policy?" gives so many examples that it immediately convinced me that my fuzzy, unexamined thoughts about pseudonyms needed to be revised.

With the help of reader comments and revisions, Skud lists dozens of people who might benefit from using a pseudonym. They include people who face discrimination, bullying, harassment or assault, including women and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered) people, and people with disabilities and other minorities. Others include people with non-mainstream views, survivors of abuse, victims of crimes, those accused of crimes, political dissidents, whistle-blowers, the famous seeking anonymity, or people whose online activity is limited as a condition of their employment.

For these and other legitimate reasons, tens of thousands -- possibly millions -- might choose a pseudonym. And whether anyone thinks they should, in many countries they have a right to, regardless of whether Google employees or anyone else thinks they should. It's really that simple.

And let's not even go into the fact that anonymous writing has a long and often honorable history, such as the debates over the American Constitution that resulted in the Federalist Papers.

As Skud summarized to me, to all appearances, "Google's names policy is short-sighted and discriminatory, and their processes and communication about it are a complete train wreck."

Yet, despite the short-terms problems it is causing many people, perhaps Google's name policy will be a long-term, indirect benefit. Especially if Google refuses to back down or clarify, these events may make people think twice before entrusting their on-line future to Google or to any other corporation via cloud services.

Even more importantly, it may alert other people -- as it did me -- to why the use of pseudonyms online is not a fringe concern. Instead, it's a right that should be defended by anyone who cares about the freedom of the Internet.


  • The 'no pseudonyms policy' is maybe THE MOST offensive thing they could have done.

    I CANNOT AGREE MORE with anyone who thinks Google have BOO-BOO'ed this one. Big time.

    Feel betrayed, and yes that's a strong word, by someone I thought of as on 'OK' company and not as much of a 'pig' as all the others, implementing this awful stupid ridiculous policy!

    Baffled that 'not-so-bad-google' could have done this in the first place actually. Just don't get it. For MONEY?

    It is a very invasive and harsh policy that is making me, for the first time ever I might add! seriously think about deleting all my google stuff, drop the gmail account and go it the old fashioned way - pops, imaps accounts! Good ol' days..

    Serious damage is being, and has now been done, to their rep.

    I hope they reverse it..

  • Update

    The first results of Skud's efforts to find other people banned by Google:
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