Future Tense

Google Plus Finally Gives Up on Its Ineffective, Dangerous Real-Name Policy

Google Plus’ new change is a long time coming.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After three years, Google finally got it.

Google now admits it was wrong to require real names on Google Plus, and it’s apologized for taking so long, causing “unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users.” Too bad it had to learn the hard way, but better late than never.

When Google Plus launched three years ago, one of the people who signed up was Iranian activist known widely on the Iranian Internet by the pseudonym “Vahid Online.” Iran is well known to arrest people for their online activity, so Vahid has a good reason not to use his real name. But then Google announced that pseudonyms would not be allowed and Vahid’s account was deactivated along with many others——including a Google employee best known online as “Skud.” An outcry ensued—not just from activists in authoritarian countries who are vulnerable to arrest for their online activity, but from a broader set of people who believe fiercely in everyone’s right to define and control one’s own online identity.

In a scathing blog post data scholar and privacy advocate Danah Boyd declared: “ ‘Real names’ policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.” Skud launched a website called “My Name Is Me” with a collection of people who support “your freedom to choose the name you use on social networks and other online services.” They filled it with powerful testimonials and discussions of why a person might want to keep their online persona (or personas) separate from their real-life identity. Among the types of people listed (other than dissidents in a repressive states) for whom pseudonymity is important: people who are LGBT, abuse survivors, “people from small communities,” politically active people or religious people who may suffer discrimination at work if their beliefs became known, etc.

In response to the outcry, Google adjusted its policy in January 2012, allowing people to use “established pseudonyms” and nicknames if they could provide evidence both of their real identity as well as proof that they had an online identity with a “meaningful following.” Vahid Online was back, but not without jumping through many virtual hoops to prove who he was to Google staff and why his need for a pseudonym was valid. Those hoops are now gone. As of this week, “there are no more restrictions on what name you can use.”

The comments thread under this week’s announcement reflects just how controversial the question of online identity continues to be. You cant please everybody no matter what you do. Many commenters applauded the move: A woman in Mexico, for example, wrote that in her society, where kidnappings are common, the need to separate online and “real life” identities can mean the difference between life and death. But others worried they will face a new surge of abusive behavior and “trolling” on the service, and are threatening to leave. Some even threatened to restore their Facebook accounts.

Yonatan Zunger, Google Plus’s chief architect, reassured the worriers that the company’s “troll-smashing department has gotten very good.” More broadly, Google’s decision signals that the company now believes the downsides of real-name enforcement—not just the hassle of enforcement, but the message it sends to users about the kind of relationship the company wants to have with them—outweigh the benefits. It also creates a clearer distinction from Facebook, which touts its real-name policy as a way of holding users accountable for their behavior.

There are plenty of examples of Facebook users engaging in hateful behavior under their real names, however. Research about online identity shows that “real ID” policies are not as effective as their proponents claim. Disqus, an online commenting platform, conducted an informal analysis of about 500 million comments by 60 million users and found that pseudonymous users wrote better comments (and more of them) than those who were using their real names, with anonymous users being responsible for the bottom-feeder-quality comments.

An econometric analysis of a South Korean third-party commenting platform by two Carnegie Mellon professors reached similar conclusions: Although real-name policies are “likely to reduce the probability of using offensive words, the greater number of users seems to prefer participating in the commenting activity by using their pseudonym accounts.” But they found that for active commenters, real-name policies actually increased the frequency of offensive words.

Control over a person’s identity equals power over that person. In 2011, Tunisian activist Slim Amamou appealed to Google executives in an email: “It is you, Google Plus, who are supposed to generate identities and not simply trust nation-states’ administrations for that.” Over the past year, Google and other Internet companies have been standing up to excessive government surveillance that damages user trust, and thus their global business. If your identity is defined by the state, and if companies choose to enforce their real-name identity policies based on government-issued ID’s, companies are giving the surveillance state a major leg up—whether they mean to or not. That is the world we live in.  Will Facebook ever get it, too? We can keep hoping.

Disclosure: The authors work for New America, a think tank whose board of directors is chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.