Google reverses 'real names' policy, apologizes

Summary:In a dramatic reversal from policy enforced since it was created three years ago, Google will now allow users to use any name they want across Google services.

In a dramatic turnaround from policy created — and enforced  — three years ago, Google has now reversed its "real names" policy. Users can now use any name they want across Google services.

The company announced, "there are no more restrictions on what name you can use." 

Google-Plus-Logo

A post Tuesday afternoon on Google's own Plus account apologized for the policy, saying:

When we launched Google+ over three years ago, we had a lot of restrictions on what name you could use on your profile. This helped create a community made up of real people, but it also excluded a number of people who wanted to be part of it without using their real names. 

(...) Today, we are taking the last step: there are no more restrictions on what name you can use. 

We know you've been calling for this change for a while. We know that our names policy has been unclear, and this has led to some unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users.

For this we apologize, and we hope that today's change is a step toward making Google+ the welcoming and inclusive place that we want it to be.

Thank you for expressing your opinions so passionately, and thanks for continuing to make Google+ the thoughtful community that it is.

The change is a huge surprise after three years of user dissatisfaction, anger, and even fear of being outed by a social media giant known for being unresponsive to its users.

It's even more surprising after years of digging in its heels on the topic of "real names" -- to the point of dramatically breaking user trust. A petition from upset YouTube commenters over the policy reached over 350,000 signatures this year and appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Are the Nymwars over?

2011 was the year Google made its major social network play with the launch of Google+ — and became the year that imprinted Nymwars onto the map of wider collective consciousness.

Not long after Google launched Plus, it staked its citizens ability to participate in the social network and ancillary Google services on whether or not Google thought its users were operating in Plus under their “real names.”

Shortly after welcoming everyone to its new social network, Google+ quietly embarked on a sudden, mass account purge.

Google began its "real name" enforcement with mass Google+ account suspensions and deletions shortly after Google+ launched in July 2011. The whole mess is called Nymwars.

Ex-Google employees were deleted. Writers, musicians, programmers and more were deleted. Editing your name raised suspicion and still risks getting you flagged.

Google+ did not warn users before suspending user accounts. Some people reported being locked out of all Google services, including docs and Gmail.

Google+ remained silent while Nymwars raged through the headlines — until the search giant said it would allow "alternate names" — which was incorrectly reported (at first) as if Google had begin to allow pseudonyms. This was shown to be untrue when Google told ZDNet that "nicknames" had to be proven with your real name and government ID.

In the background, Google+ began "unifying" people's identities (combining its background matching of users names and profiles) in Android address books.

For LGBT, political dissidents, activists and at-risk people everywhere, Google's little Google+ project became a loaded gun pointed right at anyone whose privacy is what keeps them alive.

Users found out in January 2014 when Google+ force-integrated chat and SMS into "hangouts" in the Android 4.4 "KitKat" update.

At-risk users were disproportionately affected, most especially transgender people who needed to keep their identities separate for personal safety and employment reasons.

At launch the Google+ policy stated, "To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you."

Controversies and raging debates about online anonymity and pseudonyms are certainly part of the online landscape.

But Google’s mishandling of social networking in regard to user names pushed pseudonym arguments out of online community spheres, and into mainstream consciousness.

The "real names" issue and Google's handling of it also cast a dark shadow over a company once regarded as trustworthy and positive.

But can Google get its user trust back with a change that for some will be "too little, too late"?

Today's Google+ announcement that Google has reversed it stance on "real names" signifies a serious shift for the company and its social network.

It's safe to say that Google just surprised everyone by changing a major policy -- and by showing that it has begun to listen to its users.

See also: Thanks for nothing, jerkface

Topics: Google, Social Enterprise

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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