Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Yeah, it seems to be a publicity stunt rather than a real feature.

    I tried to get them to approve the name I use in real life. They refused. There is NO explanation, NO room for any attempt by me to justify my claim, NO mechanism for response. I have no information to even convince me that they read the appeal.

    My spouse, my lawyer, my friends, my coworkers, all know me as "seebs". If I am out in public and you shout "seebs", I look; if you shout the name that Google thinks I should use, I don't look, because it's probably not me.

    But that's not good enough for Google.
  • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

    They're still making this all up as they go along. I'll bet they haven't even thought about whether or not they're going to go through all the outstanding appeals and look at them in light of their new policy. I've already submitted proof that I have gone by "Angelique" for decades, and their response was, "I am a robotron. I type what is programmed into me. Please send your drivers' license. And your passport. And fingerprints. And some blood. But not urine that will corrode my gears."

    And even if I resubmit all of those items, they STILL won't accept a mononym, and I'll bet they try to weasel out of accepting G+ name by saying that it was only very recently that I used "Angelique" with a last name, and my biggest following (Twitter) doesn't use a last name.

    What's interesting: They told me they were definitely going to close my account immediately. That was months ago. Maybe it's because I have a brand page, but they never did close my account. They just hid it from the rest of the world.

    I guess I'll go through the process just so I can blog about it!
  • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

    This is a 400+ long thread, started by one of the people at Google who works on this, where he answers lots of questions and goes into detail about everything. This includes their initial policies, what went wrong, and why they're still insisting on "name-like" names and don't allow arbitrary usernames.
  • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

    After more than six months of this type of double talk, evasiveness, and intentional obfuscation, Google's in-your-face dishonesty regarding the (as yet undisclosed) real motives behind their naming policy should be clear to everyone.
  • Social & Anonymity?

    Hmm, my original post disappeared...

    Why is anonmyity on a service, where you go to converse with friends an issue? How are your friends supposed to find you and converse with you, if you are being anonymous? How are you going to converse with them and still keep your anonymity?

    I can see why people like Robert Scoble might want to have their pseudony associated with their account, but why the need to "just" have a pseudonym?
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      What kind of "friends" do you have who don't know how to find you or converse with you?

      No matter what I call myself on the internet my friends know how to find me.

      Internet "friends" and "acquaintances" can chat with me through my pseudo-nym. If they don't like that they can go cry on their other "friends" for all I care.
      Sceptical Observer
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        @Sceptical Observer Then you aren't anonymous...
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        But you still have not answered the "important" questions.
        Sceptical Observer
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        Exactly right. Your real friends know how to find you.

        I love Google because their services are really good (and of course, free!) But they are really scaring me on this issue. I am not a conspiracy theorist but something just feels weird and scary with this real-name issue. I'm slowly weaning myself off of their tools.
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      @wright_is Totally agree with you here. I think the issue is however, a bit more complex. One point is that individuals or groups, especially when it comes to social activism may need anonymity to protect their lives or well being, but need to exist within a social space so that others find and interact. However, I also think there is a misconception that Google+ will become THE INTERNET, and so, since anonymity can currently exist now out there in the internet, then that MUST continue within a social space. I agree with neither idea. Google+ will not become the whole of the Internet, nor do people have a right to be anonymous just because they want to be.

      What I personally find most interesting about this discussion is how a "public" perception of Google is changing. When Google+ was announced, some heralded it as the hero to all and the killer of that nasty Facebook, yet, as it evolves, we are all learning that a social space/network and a search engine are not one in the same.

      I think there is a real problem with Google's implementation of pseudo names, but I also am of the opinion that for most of us, being real people is essential. Just as in the real world, I can not build good relationships, if I am not authentic, I think that has a parallel in a virtual social and networking space. Now, authenticity and having your real name, are not exactly the same thing.
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        @thomascwaters And being an activist, directly in Google's eye isn't really very clever either! It only takes one slip in a search or something and you lose you anonymity anyway.

        If you want to be an anonymous activist, there are much better places to go than Google+ (or Facebook, for that matter).
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        @thomascwaters "Just as in the real world, I can not build good relationships, if I am not authentic, I think that has a parallel in a virtual social and networking space."

        Of course, though disclosing information on your political opinions, lifestyle choices, etc on a need-to-know basis only -- and therefore using a pseudonym where anyone in the world can find and read what you write about these things -- has nothing to do with being inauthentic in your personal relationships.
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        @Anon4Fun "Need to know" means that you use Circles, and then "anyone in the world" can't find and read what you write.
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        @daengbo Using circles vastly reduces the audience for whatever message you think needs to get out there. A pseudonym carries no such limitation.
  • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

    I use fake names and fake data (eg birthday) on all sites, because I do not trust the Internet. The Internet is the criminal's wet dream. A means for scamming and robbing good people. It is identity theft gone wild. Heck with these sites' assurances of privacy and protection - I have received scammer emails purportedly from websites where I had long ago deleted my profile. Real names and data on the Internet - forget it!
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      Sceptical Observer
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      ditto here. Unless it's a some official business, you should never give away your real identity.
      The Linux Geek
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      @kurio999 Then you may operate outside of the license agreement or terms of use that you agree to. While I get your point, I wonder if acting falsely is really all that different from some criminal behavior?

      This isn't an internet only issue. Identity theft happens by people picking through your garbage, and a host of other ways.

      In terms of on-line, the issue becomes how can we hold companies accountable for protecting our information?
      • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

        Not complying with a TOS is not a crime.
        Sceptical Observer
    • RE: Google's Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

      @kurio999 I agree 100%. Why shouldn't anyone have the right to an alternative persona on the internet? Isn't it a basic human right? ;) I have several email addresses which I use for different purposes and if I start getting spam on a particular address, I can at least know roughly what started it.