Google’s Anonymity Fail

If you’ve been following the nerdverse’s ongoing conversation about Google+, you probably know of the debate over their “real name” policy. Basically, Google wants you to have one account, and for that account to be recognizably you. So you OSC fans can’t call yourselves Locke or Demosthenes and start rabble rousing or anything like that; you’ll have to rouse the rabble under your own name.

A writer I admire a great deal (who writes under a pen name) posted a link to my name is me, an online group advocating for social networking sites to adopt a policy allowing people to develop their online presence anonymously or pseudonymously if they wish. They’re collecting stories from some of the people who have made the choice to be outspoken and yet private, and if you go browse their stories, you’ll find it’s time well spent. Although my name is [currently] on the banner of this blog, I have been close to situations where people needed to make things public while protecting their identities, and I may someday (for entirely different) reasons, choose to publish under a pen name. I’m not well known enough for my testimonial to have much value on their site, though, so I figured I’d post about the issue here instead.

This is a surprising hill for Google to choose to die on. It shows a pretty thorough misunderstanding of who the early adopters who have chosen to stake out some ground on their platform are. Right now most of the people I know who have jumped onboard with Google+ are specifically people who are unhappy with Facebook’s cavalier disregard for personal privacy. So while most people out there won’t care about this policy, and some will openly applaud it, the folks who have given Google+ its first legs are the very folks who will find it most offensive. (Also, shutting down William F. Shatner’s profile because you can’t believe it’s really him just makes you look stupid.)

The smartest policy for Google to adopt would be Twitter’s: have whatever name you choose, as long as the name is not abusive and as long as you’re not impersonating anybody.

But mostly I don’t care what Google+ does. On their site as on this one, I’m already going by the name everybody already calls me. What I’m more interested in addressing is the growing trend I see to make a fetish out of using one’s real name online. I’ve seen this come up long before this latest discussion, on forums and such, with people who prefer to use their real name making a big deal out of it, as if somehow they’re more trustworthy. And in some cases, I’m surprised by the people who would choose to take this stance.

Because in the really important things, doing away with anonymity is the tool of the powerful.

Photo by Saïvann (Possibly not his real name.)

If you believe everybody has equal freedom of speech in this country, you’re mistaken. Because even if you’re free from legal prosecution for what you say, speech has consequences, and those consequences are more easily borne by people with more resources. And conversely, those consequences are often heavier for little people, when a big company wants to play hardball.

Teachers often find themselves in that situation. When you’re a teacher, often there is but a single legitimate employer in your county. Leaving an abusive work situation isn’t so easy when the alternative is to drive an hour or more every day or chuck your seniority out the window for a new career. There are other legitimate reasons for teachers to value their ability to speak out anonymously, though. What if I decided I wanted to start publishing erotica? What if it was gay or fetish erotica? How long would I last in my Bible-belt county? What if I wanted to discuss issues I face as an Adult Survivor without scrutiny or judgment from people I know?

I’ve seen people online say that they don’t find posts written by anonymous people credible. (They only say it when the anonymous person is someone presenting an opposing viewpoint, oddly enough.) When I’ve seen it happen, the folks saying this are frequently business owners or wealthy people who don’t have to worry about the consequences of what they say. What surprises me, though, are the exceptions. People who are usually on the side of the little guy, who don’t seem to realize that the value they’re espousing here can hurt that little guy.

Privacy is important to me. People’s ability to speak out anonymously is a fundamental part of that.

For an example of a company playing hardball, look at the RIAA lawsuits over illegal music downloads. I’m not taking a position on illegally downloading music here, but I think even people who oppose the practice can agree that the RIAA has been heavy-handed. But people have been forced to settle out of court–potentially even people who were innocent of wrongdoing–on the RIAA’s terms because the RIAA can more easily afford a lawsuit than you or I can. Or look at the harassment that critics of Scientology have experienced. This imbalance of power is what I’m talking about here.

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2 Responses to Google’s Anonymity Fail

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    Although I do mostly use my personal identity online, I do respect your position. In many cases, especially as you describe above for teachers who would like to be able to post things that are not school-age-friendly, semi-anonymity is a good way to do so. Indeed, the history of pseudonyms in our culture are often those of thoughtful well spoken people.

    However, sometimes, and not infrequently, trolls hide behind those same aliases. Individuals who have no more maturity than an eight-year-old, and no skill to debate rationally in a public forum. That is what gets me. The anonymous unsupported slander, and name calling, and… well… crap!

    I love all the years that I spent being semi-anonymous, and still do indulge in it a little. Perhaps one day I’ll revive my pseudonym, or invent a new one. But I’ll never descend to that level.

  2. Tom Emmons says:

    Oops, forgot to add that Google is reviewing their anonymity policy. Expect some change to that soon.

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