Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

Summary:Details about the new Google Plus pseudonym policy implementation reveal new problems.

Earlier this week when Google Plus announced changes to its name policy, I was quick to point out that what was being reported as the ability to create and use pseudonyms on the service was not what it seemed.

After extensive communication over the past three days (and nights) with Google's official spokespeople and learning about implementation, I am more confident that I am correct.

I'm also starting to think that a lot of this extended drama is because Google is fighting against the core reason everyday Internet citizens use pseudonyms: anonymity.

Google Plus has faced a lot of backlash about it's so-called "real name" policy.

It can best be described as a confusing, velvet-glove-cast-in-iron policy where users of the social network are required use their birth or government ID names - and when flagged, must prove it, and submit official documentation as proof.

Google began its enforcement with mass account suspensions and deletions. Enforcement has been troublingly uneven. The whole mess is called Nymwars.

In comparison, other social networks have similar policies, but have been less Draconian about user name policy enforcement.

As you may have heard, this week Google made two basic changes to the name policy:

  • The ability to add a nickname to users' pre-existing display names.
  • People with a pre-existing pseudonym that have a modicum of provable fame/notoriety may open new accounts using [only] their pseudonym.

Here are the details on Google+ name policy changes, especially as they relate to pseudonyms.

1. Google is not allowing new pseudonyms.

The only users currently allowed to open an account with a pseudonym are people that have used the pseudonym widely in other places and can meet Google's standards for a "meaningful following" on other social networks.

But what if a user wants to establish their pseudonym within Google Plus? Say, if an artist wants to launch as a "Google Plus star"?

Google's Senior Manager of Global Communications and Public Affairs told me,

Unfortunately today we still do not offer support this use case, but as Bradley said this is just a first step. We realize we have not solved every use case and we'll continue to review and update our policies.

That being said, we will not question people who sign up for Google+ with names that would pass our system, such as John Smith or Guy Fawkes. This has been true since the launch of Google+.

So if you pick a fake name that looks real, you get a pass.

I strongly feel that by not allowing new pseudonyms, Google Plus is closing the door to the very people that need a pseudonym the most.

2. The signup process for pseudonymous accounts is selective (and likely to reveal your identity to Google employees).

The devil is definitely in the details here. Google's spokesperson explained to me that to use a pseudonym, one simply signs up for a new Plus account:

When filling out the name field, if our system does not recognize what you entered as a name, then we give you the chance to alter the name submitted or continue through to our names appeals process.

If you choose to go through the appeals process, we will then ask you to submit proof of your established online or offline identity. Once you submit evidence, we try to get back to you within 1-2 days. Please note that the established pseudonym you submit will not be tied to your legal or birth name.

(For current Google+ users who want to change their name to an established pseudonym, they can change their name by editing the name field in their profile. At that point, they may trigger our names appeals process, and then they go through the steps.)

In Mr. Horowitz's post, he explained that an established online identity is one that has a "meaningful following."

Since Google has never disclosed what constitutes a meaningful following, or what exactly will be accepted as proof, I asked what won't work as proof - in the hopes of helping people make a self-assessment to decide if they should even bother with this process.

Google told me,

We’re not disclosing the exact numbers because they may differ depending on the source, or they may change over time (as social networking changes over time). We also aren’t disclosing the exact numbers because don’t want people to abuse the policy or spam thresholds.

It’s important to note that not all appeals will be granted. Users must show that this name is known by a meaningful number of other people.

Glad we got that cleared up.

In Mr. Horowitz's post, Google gave us these examples of proof that a would-be pseudonym applicant can expect to be asked to submit:

  • Proof of an established identity online with a meaningful following (essentially we just want to know that you are already known outside of Google+ by this identity, so it can be another social network, where you already have a meaningful following)
  • References to an established identity offline in print media, news articles, etc
  • Scanned official documentation, such as a driver’s license

Yes, you read that last line correctly. Prove your pseudonym with your real name.

A lot of people threw heavy WTF shade at that one: on the surface, it makes about as much sense as having a pseudonym policy that can be sidestepped with a "real enough" looking name.

Government ID to prove your pseudonym is tied to you - it is illogical, which is exactly what I said to Google's official spokesperson when I asked for clarification on that point. Google's response to me was,

It's just one example of proof you can submit.

Oh, okay.

At the risk of reprisal, this kind of logic makes me think someone at Google Nymwars HQ has excellent - and enviable - drug connections.

I joke. But this is a concrete example of where pseudonymity and anonymity part ways under the Google identity banner.

FYI, Google has stated repeatedly that they will destroy all copies of sensitive ID you send them. But I do wish they would tell people what private information to black out on the ID when they send it in, though - https or no.

3. Current users that switch to using a pseudonym will still have a very visible record of their name on the account.

So, what if you are thinking about finally firing up that Google Plus account since you can now apply to use a pseudonym?

If you want to keep your 'nym separate from your Google "real name" identity, I don't recommend it.

Many people incorrectly thought that the announcement meant users can change their username to a pseudonym so they can show their 'nym - and not their real name - in Google Plus.

The hope here was the true use of a pseudonym: masking your everyday identity with a different name you choose to use (or need to use, or are known by your online friends as) with no way for people you don't trust to find out your real name.

Unfortunately if you switch horses mid-stream in Google Plus, anyone will be able to find out.

I asked what happens when a current user is allowed to begin using a pseudonym - wouldn't their original name still be in Google's records? Google replied,

The original name tied to their Google+ profile will still be visibly retained.

When you change your name, old posts and comments that were made with the old name continue to use that name.

Pseudonyms and anonymity: the cornerstones of Internet culture

With the changes coming to Google's global privacy policy March 1, it could be especially problematic for people who use a pseudonym because they are at risk personally or politically.

Combine this with Search Plus Your World, which default integrates Google Plus into Google Search - its heart - and control over our identity is intertwined with an attempt to control our very experience of the Internet.

Lots of people have valid reasons to use a pseudonym - a name not connected to their everyday or government name. So I'm not going to tell you things you already know about stalking, politics, keeping one's job separate from personal activities or attacks on minorities.

Pseudonyms are used by normal people that require a self-defined level of separated anonymity to maintain the sanctity and safety of their everyday lives.

Any reasons behind emphasizing verifiable and real identity aside, it remains to be seen that Google is not willing to embrace the fundamental principles of pseudonyms.

Welcome to the poor man's pseudonym: functional, not famous

You could technically argue that Google Plus does now allow certain kinds of pseudonyms - only under specific conditions.

Famous people are fine. Everyone else is seated at the kids' table until further notice.

I think that Google is simply attempting to redefine "pseudonym" without the protections a functional pseudonym affords with all that pesky anonymity.

Pseudonyms used by everyday people are a cornerstone of Internet culture - in many cases, they are key to what makes Internet culture possible and great.

Google+ will only ever be as great as it allows the Internet to be itself inside Google's walled garden.

Dear Google: you have an interesting problem. But in case you haven't noticed, you're kind of starting to scare people.

Topics: China, Apps, Google, Legal, 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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