Google's real names a real disaster

Google's real names a real disaster

Summary: Google demands that users of its Google+ social network be identified by their real names. It's a bad policy that's been badly implemented, but is it proof that Google just doesn't get people?


Google demands that users of its Google+ social network be identified by their real names. It's a bad policy that's been badly implemented, but is it proof that Google just doesn't get people?

Requiring users to identify themselves to Google is reasonable enough. But having to reveal your identity publicly can cause problems for many people. Sociologist danah boyd has gone as far as calling it an abuse of power.

Google's problems go well beyond the overall policy objective. The names policy is poorly thought out, and is ambiguous. Google demands that people use their common name, "the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you" — but then rejects names, because they're not legal or don't conform to a rather narrow idea of how names work.

Google's implementation has been heavy handed and inconsistent. Originally, a Google Profile that seemed to breach the names policy was simply deleted. Now, they give a generous four days of warning — provided you log-in to see the pop-up. Google doesn't do email, it seems.

Developer Kirrily "Skud" Robert, herself a Google employee until earlier this year, has been documenting the disaster. She tells this week's Patch Monday podcast that she's gone beyond the idea that Google doesn't do customer service or doesn't do social. She reckons they just don't do people.

Robert explains some of the more incompetent-seeming name rejections, and why Facebook's names policy, which on the surface appears even stricter than Google's, has been implemented with little outcry.

Patch Monday also includes my usual look at some of last week's news headlines.

To leave an audio comment on the program, Skype to stilgherrian, or phone Sydney 02 8011 3733.

Running time: 34 minutes

Topics: Google, IT Employment, Social Enterprise


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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
  • As someone who helps moderate a busy IM forum I have no problem with heavy handed approaches to cleaning up the net. The spammers/scammers make life difficult for everyone directly or indirectly - right down to kids having to be careful which silly facebook pages they "like" because they enable scammers to access their info.
    • This reasoning boils down to security theater - "there's something to be afraid of, so we must punish everyone who isn't the problem". That's the "heavy handed" approach Google has been taking and the excuse behind their reasoning.

      There are tons of communities online that don't bother with a claim to "real names only, for your security and peace of mine" yet have virtually zero problem with "scammers" and aren't "ruined by anonymous comments". That's because those communities are simply and intelligently constructed and moderated correctly.

      The proof is in the pudding. Google's policy has done little to create a positive atmosphere on G+ whenever there's any debate, especially over this topic. The "real names" brigade has been consistently **** ish, intolerant, and insulting towards anyone who argues for freedom of expression. All done under their "real names" and usually RL photograph.
  • Do you have a transcript available?
    • I remember asking for this since time immemorial. Good luck with that!
  • Agreed, sounds interesting, but I can't listen to it. Text only would be good (or even a warning on the main page that this isn't an article, but a audio stream).
  • Patch Monday is a podcast, so it's produced directly as an audio program. Transcripts aren't usually made, but I'll ask The Powers That Be.
  • At least google+ won't be full of party political hacks from both sides of politics why aren't game to put their name to anything, and then attach people who do.
    • No, you'll just have confirmation bias and people self censoring in fear of retribution should they express their true feelings. Hardly a triumph.

      I know this because I frequently self censor on the 'net. You could argue that's good for discourse but it's not; there are many facets about me that I don't want to become common knowledge amongst my r/l peers.
  • I don't see this as an abusive of power. Online bullying and harrasment would be reduced. As for those who complain about self censorship, if you aren't game to say it, you shouldn't be game to type it.
    • This is a naive and frankly incorrect way to look at it. I've broken my response into two posts.....

      I think the most important thing you're not understanding is the concept of bullying. A bully is a bully, whether they use their real name or not. Honestly - did you never have bullies at school? I did - we ALL knew their real names, it didn't stop them from bullying one bit. Entering into the online world as a teenager was such a relief to me...detachment from my real name meant the bullies (who also knew my real name) couldn't find me. Someone tried to bully me online all of once - I was able to block him, easy peasy. I was also able to switch screennames - something I wouldn't have been able to do if I'd been forced to use my real name.

      I'm also dealing with a bully right now - though I suppose as an adult you call it "harassment", not bullying, eh? A coworker's spent the last year making my life absolutely miserable. They started a year before that, but this year it's been cranked up to full harassment mode. He's bad-mouthed me to my colleagues in private (so I'm told) and public. He's sent out e-mails about my incompetence to my supervisor with "facts" that are ridiculously easy to disprove, but since he has such seniority, it's been on me to disprove them every single time. Three others have left the job because of him, in some way shape or form, but I don't have the money to simply uproot.... Now, finally, he's been essentially demoted for all this harassment (and he's got a union job - so they've definitely pinned him). Quite frankly, he still hasn't stopped since the demotion.

      Why am I rambling on about my stupid job? Because I know this guy's name. Everyone at work knows his name. That has *never* prevented him from sending out slanderous e-mails against my colleagues and me or speaking against us in meetings. Real names does not stop bullies.

      Do you know what real names does prevent? It prevents people from getting support. When I was at my lowest, and I was almost going to be a fourth person who left the job in the last year because of this guy, I stumbled into an online forum consisting of people who had been through or were dealing with similar situations. If I had been forced to use my real name I would never have posted there - but I wasn't. Under a pseudonym I was able to describe what this guy was doing, receive reassurance it was wrong, and support to stand up to him and fight. Since his demotion several other colleagues, who I hadn't even known he was bullying or making feel uncomfortable, have actually thanked me for what I'd done.

      Names are nothing but what we make of them. Let the words and actions of an individual speak for who they are, not the assortment of random symbols their parents or the state assigned them. I can hold a door open for someone without demanding their driver's license. They're a person, and I don't need to know their name to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are worth my time and respect.

      I knew someone in real life for about two years before I found out what I called them - what our mutual friend had introduced them by - wasn't even their real name, just a nickname our mutual friend had been using so long she actually introduced her that way. I don't know the real name of one of my former bosses - I know it begins with an "O" because that's how his work-issued e-mail (first initial of first name followed by last name) begins, but I've always known him as "Dave" and he will always be "Dave" to me. If he showed me his driver's license tomorrow and it said "Omar" or something on it, I would still call him Dave. And if Dave bullied me (he totally never did - he was a fantastic boss!) I would be able to identify him to the proper individuals even without knowing his "real" first name. My current boss doesn't go by her "real" first name, either, although she's informed be of what it is solely because the company forces her to use it on their business cards. It gets very confusing. ...but bottom line, not knowing or not using these individuals "real" names has *never* affected my relationships with them.

      I can't help but wonder if you are one of those individuals confusing "pseudonyms" with "anonymous"
    • This is a naive and frankly incorrect way to look at it - part two!

      This real names malarkey is like a curfew - innocent people are prevented their freedoms but the real trouble-makers can and will still find ways around it - this will *not* solve *any* problems.

      Here's the deal - Google Plus isn't actually checking *real* names, they are just checking for names that *look* real. I started G+ with my real name but then saw how it altered all my other Google services (*now* they have a warning, but initially they did not). I then changed my name to what I'd been using as my Google ID up until that point (what I've made Google ID posts as, etc.) - which is an abbreviation of my real name. Friends online and offline recognize this abbreviated name as I've been using it for nearly a decade online but it would not show up if, say, my employer Googled my actual real name (which is one in six billion). Google suspended my account.

      So what was the answer? I switched it to a *completely* fake name. Suspension lifted!

      Bottom line, Google preferred I use a name that is not even mine and which has *no* connections to *any* name I've *ever* used than one I've been associated with for years and *do* speak carefully with. Honestly, as "kylemac" I try not to mouth off too much. But as "Kenneth McRoy"? I don't care what I say. These are just examples, mind - I'm not giving out my Google Plus name for fear of trolls.

      However, surprisingly (to you, maybe, but not to others) I don't actually mouth off under "Kenneth McRoy", either. Using a pseudonym doesn't automatically turn anyone into a bully. Nor does using a real name prevent anyone from being a bully.

      Several years ago my then boss Googled my real name. Found something I'd written that they didn't like. It wasn't illegal. It didn't mention anything about my boss. But my boss had found it, and didn't like it. Take it down, I was told, or lose my job. I took it down and have since never posted anything public online with my real name. I don't think people should have to choose between free speech and employment but unfortunately sometimes they do. If everyone could handle real names responsibly (for example, bosses not googling employees to find out what they are doing outside work hours....if they get the job done at work, that should be the end of it..... schoolteachers not being fired because someone posts a picture of them drinking a beer - drinking a beer! - on Facebook....) I don't think anyone would have a problem with it. But we aren't living in a utopia. When people go online looking for a non-famous real name it is NEVER for benign reasons.
  • Let's all drive Google crazy and change our legal name to something ridiculous.
    Something like, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Slartibartfast, King Edward the IV, Vegemite Jar, Arthur Dunger etc etc.
    I wonder if Frank Zappa's kids, Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Diva Muffin are on Google+.
  • Now that everyone can actually "Search" on Google+ names . . . I am concerned that more people don’t have cause for concern?

    Not that we should be surprised. It’s just that the purpose proposed by Google is, “To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.” and it seems not to be supported by the policy or the ability to police the policy. If this REALLY IS the concern then pseudonymity, as it were, should be the preference. Regardless, the boundaries are set and everyone will make of it what they will. Already today there are 100+ users named by one of three (thank you Google to make the data mining so easy) Google recommended alternatives, “For example, if your full legal name is [Charles Jones] Jr. but you normally use [Chuck Jones] or [Junior Jones], either of those would be acceptable.” It won’t be long before Anonymous = “Chuck Jones” or vice versa if Google continues this approach. There you are Yoda7!!! We (the People) have a preference.