What’s in a Pseudo-name? Privacy, Free Expression & Real Names on Google+ & Facebook

by on August 29, 2011 · 6 comments

Republished from The Mark News

Privacy advocates are attacking Google again, this time for requiring that field-testers of its new, invite-only Google+ social network use “the names they commonly go by in the real world.” After initially suspending Google+ accounts flagged as pseudonymous, Google has clarified that such users will be given four days to add their real names to their profiles. Users who don’t like the policy can export all data they’ve put into Google+ and leave.

Cyber-sociologist Danah Boyd calls “real name” policies “an authoritarian assertion of power … [by] privileged white Americans … over vulnerable people [like] abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.” In 2003, she denounced the “Fakester genocide” perpetrated by Friendster, the first major “real name” social network. Facebook later faced similar criticism from her and others for its purge of “Fakebookers” – those using fake names on the popular social network.

Boyd and others are right that anonymity can be “a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” as the U.S. Supreme Court has said while striking down laws requiring speakers to identify themselves. But, like the rest of the First Amendment, the right to anonymous speech limits government, not private actors. In other words, while the First Amendment bars government from forcing us to identify ourselves, those who sign up for Google+ must play by Google’s rules.

Boyd wants to regulate social-media giants as public utilities, but – unlike government bans – we can opt out of these services. Google and Facebook merely offer trusted communities that compete with sites like Twitter, where pseudonyms thrive alongside real names. With over 200 million users, Twitter has met the very demand Boyd cites –but she’s not satisfied.

As a gay activist myself, I’m sympathetic to her privacy concerns. But, as much as I respect Boyd, I find her obsession with “privilege” unhelpful. The engineers who design new social-networking tools may indeed tend to under-value the concerns of particularly privacy-sensitive users or groups. But their critics under-value authenticity’s benefits even more – or simply refuse to acknowledge that privacy is in tension with civility and usability, among other values.

We are more civil when those around us know who we are, and Google+ aims to “make connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world.” When we interact regularly, we hold each other accountable through the same “reputation markets” that discipline companies. We don’t shout obscenities or slurs in quiet restaurants or “spam” other patrons with useless product offers. In general, the more users disguise themselves with aliases, the less responsible they feel for their own actions – and the more spam, incivility, hatred, and outright defamation will reign online.

For some, the problem isn’t so much privacy as “regimentation.” Boyd even refuses to capitalize her name – for “political” reasons. But all social interaction rests on conventions like capitalization of proper names, which make even unique and exotic names like mine, Szoka, “usable” in print.

We navigate real-world interaction by putting faces to names. A “real name” social network allows us to connect with, and keep up with, each other much the same way: through common names (orpseudonyms – you can list both on Google+). The more work we have to do to map online identities to real life, as on Twitter, the less useful the site is as a map of the real world. “Wait, who’s PreciousPony1987, again?”

Common names are the most basic structure of social interaction, and the key to the usability of Facebook and Google+. Expression can certainly suffer if users lack control over content they share. My gay friends and I might well use Facebook Pages (even) more if we could limit visibility of our interest in sensitive subjects. If Facebook doesn’t keep evolving, some might switch to Google+, which doesn’t allow sharing of interests (“Sparks”) at all. Personally, I hope they’ll both find a happy balance between sharing and privacy; between usability and empowerment.

At worst, pseudonyms shield trolls, bullies, and stalkers. At best, for most who use them, they’re a poor proxy for what users really want: easy control over who sees which aspects of their identity. Facebook has developed tools that allow users to decide who can see which update, photo, etc. It’s up to users to take the time to configure such lists and choose an appropriate audience for the things they share.

Such sorting is optional on Facebook, but unavoidable on Google+: When one user “connects” with another, sharing content with them requires adding them to a “Circle.” Even better for privacy-worriers is the fact that, on Google+, just because someone adds you to his or her “Circle” doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate, meaning there’s less inadvertent sharing.

In short, technology is increasingly empowering users to make privacy choices for themselves. Reputational pressure and competition should keep both Google+ and Facebook working to make these privacy controls more useful. The one threat that privacy controls can’t manage is government snooping.

Pseudonyms are valuable for dissent – in Egypt, China, colonial America, and for whistleblowers inside corporations and labour unions. Better legal protections would help to protect our rights by ensuring that courts weigh legitimate demands of law enforcement with user privacy before granting access to private content. But, ultimately, companies have little ability to resist government demands for user data – so why lull users into the false security pseudonyms can create?

In general, as with most “privacy” debates, the “real name” wars can’t be reduced to “fundamental rights” or “power.” Ultimately, users are best served by competing services continually innovating to find the right balance of competing interests. Google+ and Facebook’s answer to privacy-sensitive users is right, however harsh it sounds: “This isn’t the right social network for your particular needs.” Twitter is just one of many platforms available for those who feel they need online pseudonyms, with niche services like BlackPlanet and Gay.com catering to minority users.

Fortunately for Boyd, Twitter is an open platform, which she and others could extend to offer more of the functionality of Facebook and Google+. But no service can be all things to all people. This is the cardinal rule of usability for all users, from the most “privileged” to the most “vulnerable.”

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