January 24, 2012 | By Eva Galperin

Google+ and Pseudonyms: A Step in the Right Direction, Not the End of the Road

Nearly four months after first announcing it would support pseudonyms, Google rolled out changes to the account creation process for Google+ yesterday. The changes will allow users the option of choosing a nickname/alternate name to display in his or her Google+ profile, or choosing a pseudonym which is not linked a real name.

Nicknames address the needs of users who want to display the alternate name they may be known by, or a maiden name, as well as foreign-language users who want to use an alternate name. Users who select a nickname should note, however, that Google plans to roll out nicknames to other services, so that funny college nickname you use on Google+ might appear on your professional Picasa account one day.

Users should also note that nicknames and alternate names are no substitute for pseudonyms, as Google still requires users to sign up with a “common name” which is publicly associated with the user’s account.

For users who want to use a real pseudonym—a name that is in no way associated with one’s commonly used name—there is an alternate procedure and a potential pitfall. Names that trigger Google’s pseudonym-detection algorithms, such as Doctor Popular or Skud, send users to a form that requires them to demonstrate that this name is part of an established online identity with a “significant following.” Such users can link to a website, a blog, an account on an online forum, print media or news articles, or a Twitter account to demonstrate an established identity.

Google has not clarified what constitutes a “significant following” out of apparent concern that if people know where the limits lie, they will game the system, but the lack of transparency raises the possibility that this standard will be applied as inconsistently or capriciously as the “common name” policy. Some good news, though: pseudonymous accounts that have been verified using this procedure will not be vulnerable to suspension for violating the “common name” policy. Once your pseudonym has been approved, you cannot be suspended for not using a "common name."

People with non-standard names and mononyms may still find that their names trigger Google’s pseudonym-detection algorithms. When the algorithm is triggered, Google may still ask for a scan of official documentation, such as a driver’s license or passport. Although Google requests such information over their own platform using HTTPS, what the company does with the documentation after using it remains unclear.

Users who sign up with “name shaped” pseudonyms—such as Salman Rushdie or Mark Twain—that do not trigger Google’s pseudonym-detection algorithms, are not automatically asked to provide proof of an established identity. This is great, because it allows users to create accounts with new pseudonyms that are not linked to accounts on other services. On the other hand, if a user with a name-shaped pseudonym is reported by another user, their account could be vulnerable to takedown if deemed in violation of Google+’s content policy. Pseudonymous users on both Google+ and Facebook have reported attacks of this kind from other users, used intentionally for the purpose of getting their accounts taken down.

We feel that Google deserves some credit for finally taking steps to accommodate pseudonyms. Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect of Google+, explains that the change of heart was the result of looking at data and realizing that Google’s initial assumptions were wrong:

“We thought…that people would behave very differently when they were and weren't going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.)”

Google’s observations are bolstered by a recent analysis of Disqus comments which suggested that the pseudonymous comments on its service are some of the most useful.

At the same time, let’s be clear: Google+’s latest changes are a good first step toward supporting pseudonyms, but they are not an acceptable end game. While some users will be satisfied, there is still no support for individuals who wish to establish new pseudonyms. For new activists, or people creating new identities with which to explore a new issue—such as gay rights or politics—Google+ is not a welcome place for them to build that identity.

Google emphasizes how few people are affected by this policy by pointing out that only 0.1% of users have submitted name appeals, and of that 0.1%, only 20% were seeking to use a pseudonym, but even though their numbers are small, these are often the people who need social networks the most. These are the revolutionaries, the bloggers in authoritarian regimes, the isolated minorities reaching out to the rest of the world for understanding and support. If Google+ hopes to be a global company on the side of those seek to use technologies to build a free society, it needs to make room for the people working (often under adverse conditions) to create that world, instead of dismissing them as edge cases. We will continue to keep a close eye on Google’s name policies as they develop.

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