Google+, Facebook and Online Identity: The Problem With “Real Names” (And Why It Matters To You)

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google plus logoA long time ago, Lawrence Lessig wrote the book Code (1999). He argued, persuasively, that “code is law.” And “code”? It’s written, in the main, by profit-maximizing organizations.

In 2003, Mark Zuckerburg launched the site that would become Facebook. You had to use a real email address and your real name. The site was, for all intents and purposes, a limited edition Match.com (which requires real names – “accurate” profile information). Content was not accessible via the public web; it was only accessible to those who had access (harvard.edu email addresses) to the site. Reams have been written about privacy and the poorly enforced “real names” policy as Facebook pushed its users from from the protections of a very closed garden to the public web — a push mandated by the profit-maximization needs of a corporation.

Flash forward to June 2011. Google launched Google+ and technology early adopters scrambled to secure a field trial invitation. As danah boyd writes:

Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy. Only, they made a huge mistake. They allowed the tech crowd to join within 48 hours of launching. The thing about the tech crowd is that it has a long history of nicks and handles and pseudonyms. And this crowd got to define the early social norms of the site, rather than being socialized into the norms set up by trusting college students who had joined a site that they thought was college-only. This was not a recipe for “real name” norm setting. Quite the opposite.

Pause.

I can hear you thinking.

“Anonymity = unaccountability = spam and trolls.”

“Own Your Own Words.”

“If you don’t do anything wrong … what does it matter?”

Like Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, I have a bias towards what I think of a fixed or persistent identity based on my experience in political forums where anonymous accounts are the equivalent of invisibility cloaks for spray can wielding malcontents.

It seemed natural to believe that attaching a persistent, real name to one’s online identity more accurately modeled our real-world social space.

I’ve changed my mind. The kind of naming policy that Facebook and Google Plus have is actually a radical departure from the way identity and speech interact in the real world. They attach identity more strongly to every act of online speech than almost any real world situation does.

I have serious issues with total anonymity in forum discussions. [Run away!]

But if someone wants to use their nickname as their primary name on a Google Profile, who is harmed? The Google Profile is a persistent identity, whether or not it conforms to a legal ID.

Google and Facebook (et al) are insisting on “real names” — at least rhetorically — in the same manner as, well, a bank or the government. [I say rhetorically because the examples of non-conformance and failure-to-suspend are rampant in both spaces. This hypocrisy should be sufficient to motivate you to put pressure on Google to change its policy.] But neither Facebook nor G+ is a bank and they aren’t government agencies!

So why would Google and Facebook insist on “real names”?

They are profit-maximizing institutions beholden to advertisers to support their business model.

Let’s face it, we (Americans) expect content to be ‘free’. And we expect web services to be ‘free’. This means we implicitly endorse an advertising-supported culture, and we have done so since, well, at least the dawn of newspapers (that’s as far back as my knowledge/research goes – but I’ve written about “free content” before).

The biggest gap that I see in the rhetoric surrounding “real names” is an unstated assumption that the alternatives are binary: “real” or “anonymous.” Nothing could be further from the truth, but a “real names” policy is — think about this — a form of regulation.

Shifting back to Code and Code 2.0: According to Lessig, at the 1996 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference, Vernor Vinge and Tom Maddox, two science fiction authors, raised a red flag of warning (emphasis added):

Our digital selves—and increasingly, our physical selves—would live in a world of perfect regulation, and the architecture of this distributed computing—what we today call the Internet and its successors—would make that regulatory perfection possible [according to Vinge].

Tom Maddox followed Vinge and told a similar story, though with a slightly different cast. The government’s power would not come just from chips, he argued. Instead, it would be reinforced by an alliance between government and commerce. Commerce, like government, fares better in a well regulated world. Commerce would, whether directly or indirectly, help supply resources to build a well-regulated world. Cyberspace would thus change to take on characteristics favorable to these two powerful forces of social order. Accountability would emerge from the fledgling, wild Internet. (Code 2.0, xiii)

What we have is the powerful “law of code” (written by programmers to functional specs developed by product managers reporting to Veeps of something-or-other with bottom-line responsibilities) insisting that, for unarticulated commercial reasons, “real” (government-ID kinda real) names are the only thing that Google will accept in profiles. [Never mind that Google Profiles predate G+.]

Known by a pseudonym? You can append that to your profile but it won’t be the thing people see when they search for you. On GooglePlus, you search for a person by typing + followed by the person’s name. If you know someone by a nickname, that’s not gonna work. Moreover, as Marshall Kirkpatrick points out, this system does not scale now — and there are probably fewer than 30 million people using the service. Imagine when it’s an order of magnitude larger. Ugh.

Another argument I’ve read in support of Google’s position runs along these lines: “It’s their sandbox, play by their rules. Don’t like it? Leave.”

Given the nature of Google’s vertical and horizontal integration, that’s not an option to anyone who needs to be ‘found’ in search. From Danny Sullivan:

Want to rank better on Google? Get people to add you to their Google+ Circles, and that seems to be a potentially huge boost, based on a search I just did.

Moreover, Google is privileging content written by people with Google profiles:

When Google detects content you’ve marked as yours, we’ll list that content on the +1 tab of your Google Profile (we’ll do this automatically as soon as you’ve +1′d at least one webpage)…

If you publish a blog or site featuring content by a single author, the simplest way to identify author information is to add a link to your Google Profile on every page…

Ah. That kinds takes the wind out of the sails of that argument, doesn’t it?

Google’s policy of “don’t be evil” is under seismic stress. As it should be.

Google’s gradual growth from a search company to one with fingers in browsers (Chrome), operating systems (Android), internet communication (gMail), publishing (Blogger), broadcasting (YouTube), photo sharing (Picasa), digital networking (GPlus), digital identify (Profiles) should give us pause. Remember, there’s a giant in Redmond with a similar growth pattern.

Finally, I’m not a tin-foil-hatter, but this could be a behind-the-scenes collaboration between the feds and commerce.

Whatever its root cause, this is a line-in-the-sand moment. Corporations are re-designing Internet architecture in ways designed that counter the Internet’s fundamental support of anonymous, distributed, geographically-neutral behavior. The only beneficiaries of that change in architecture are governments and corporations.

And that’s politics.

:: WiredPen Permalink : Follow me on Twitter! [Cross-posted from The Moderate Voice and promoted at Google+]

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