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August 9, 2011 / Jim Fenton

Nymwars: A possibly unpopular opinion

Since the start of the Google Plus social networking service several weeks ago, quite a few users have had their Google+ accounts suspended because they created profiles using pseudonyms different from their “real” names. Many of those suspended use pseudonyms to have the freedom to express unpopular points of view or unorthodox sexual preferences, use a pseudonym in a professional context, or have pseudonyms for a variety of other reasons, some very personal. This has led to what is called the “nymwars”: users who have been suspended for using pseudonyms are protesting their suspension by Google+.

"No hats, no bad language..."Let me start by saying that I strongly support the need for anonymity and pseudonymity on the Internet. There are many users that would not feel the freedom to express their opinions freely if their identity is associated with their expression. For many of them, there is good reason for this as in some countries people are jailed or otherwise persecuted for opinions that differ from, for example, that of their government.  The United States has a long tradition of anonymous political discourse, and there are other situations, such as whistle-blower programs and crime-tip hotlines, where anonymity and pseudonymity provide an easily demonstrable public good.

The question here is whether Google+ should be able to require its users to use their “real” names on the service, not whether attribution is required on the Internet as a whole.  One could characterize Google+ as more like a place of business that is exercising its prerogative to set the rules for doing business there. If you don’t want to abide by the rules, go elsewhere.

My possibly unpopular opinion is that services on the Internet should decide what information they require of their users, and users should decide whether or not they are interested on that basis. Google+’s profile names policy has said that they require a user’s real name, and if there is a segment of the population that isn’t willing to abide by that, they should find another one that meets their needs.  They are free to make their opinions known to Google and others, but it’s really Google’s call.

I’m not sure whether this stance on Google’s part is a good idea or not: they are effectively saying that people who want to use pseudonyms on their social networking service are not welcome there. Social networking services grow in value nonlinearly based on the number of users they attract, and Google+ is basically saying “go away” to some subset of them. But Google+ is a work in progress: they have said that commercial pages will be added in the future, and one of the motivations might be to discourage commercial pages for characters like “Joe Camel” or “Ronald McDonald” from being created.

On one of the mailing lists to which I subscribe, Mary Hodder expressed the opinion that Google’s (and Facebook’s) market power make them more like the Mall of America, where courts have ruled that they must be treated as public places.  I’m not nearly well enough versed in the law (nor in the specific rulings) to know whether that applies here, but to me it seems like a bit of a stretch for a service as new as Google+ to be considered a public place so soon.

However, Google+ has been far from perfect in the implementation of their profile name policy:

  • Some users with unusual (in many cases non-Western) names have been suspended
  • Undoubtedly many people using pseudonyms that look like typical Western names are getting away with it
  • Appeal procedures have been uneven.  Many have been asked to prove who they are by providing a scan of a Government ID document
  • The definition of allowable variations of legal name is fuzzy.  The Google+ policy says that “if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable” but it’s a lot less clear if you normally use a different last name.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google was caught unprepared for some of these issues, or perhaps by the volume of complaints.  The fact that people are complaining bitterly about the use of pseudonyms rather than simply leaving is a great compliment to the Google+ service; in some respects it is reminiscent of the New Coke debacle of the ’80s.

This is a very timely debate.  The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) has as one of its premises a very market-driven idea:  that the relying parties (internet services you use) can specify what information they need from users, and users get to decide what “attributes” (personal information) they release to them. The availability of a trustable source for a user’s legal name would solve some of the issues above (although not the allowable variations problem).  But would users have sufficient market power to decline to provide that information?  It is the tussle over that market power that is at the heart of the “nymwars” issue.

Creative Commons-licensed image above from user clydesan on Flickr

One Comment

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  1. KD / Aug 14 2011 11:09 pm

    The problem Google has run into may be that… they’re Google. If G+ was a high end Enterprise service set up for a professional environment, it’d be one thing. If it was an exclusive Internet social club, that’d be one thing.

    But people have reacted so strongly to the name controversy because Google has spent the decade trying to become the internet. On one hand, it’s their right to define the rules of their private service. On the other hand, they voluntarily put themselves into the position of being as inclusive as possible in order to become as ubiquitous as they have.

    Changing tactics in mid-stream is a harsh, full stop that’s left a lot of folks with a sense of whiplash.

    There’s a real sense that if you’re excluded from Google+, you’re at a real disadvantage – nowhere else on the net is Google. Not even Facebook. This is why Google’s “fancy restaurant” analogy rubbed the wrong way.

    Another problem is that the focus on pseudonyms as protection from life and death harm may have actually titled the debate in slightly the wrong way. That merely invites reasoning such as “well shouldn’t you not be on Facebook if you think you’re in danger?” (But that kind of question may be flawed. Sometimes, people who are repressed and in real danger need the ability to reach out to a wide audience, but safely, more than anyone else.)

    The messy tangle that Google stepped in also involves treading on people who use chosen names or identities that aren’t “fake names”. They’re names people use on and offline – and the names everyone knows them by. A guy who’s birth certificate name is “Fred Smith” but uses “Nebula, call me Neb for short” actually has a more valuable and unique identity than just being one of 500,000 Fred Smiths. His identity as Neb on a social network does him more good than being an anonymous Smith.

    To the average person, these cases may seem like outliers. But not quite. The degree of backlash over Plus may indicate that they’re not whitebread, but they’re not super fringe corner cases as well.

    Much of this could have been avoided had Google adopted a slightly more moderate policy that challenged names that were overly artificial, such as the stereotypical SkaterBoy5843, and asked that people create names with a first and last name format that could be applied as a socially workable name. Instead, they’ve created an impasse for many by asserting that the definition of “real name” has to be what they presume should most commonly be on a North American or United Kingdom birth certificate – even if it’s a name that particular individual hasn’t used in 20 years.

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