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Identity: Is getting 'real' really the solution?

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More and more dissenting voices are being added to the uprising against Google’s “real name” requirement on its new social network, and technologists are beginning to ponder how the debate may shape identity advancements especially in the consumer space.

Shortly after Google+ launched in July with the requirement that registrants use only their actual names, the debate over real names vs. pseudonyms began again (Facebook had been the other flashpoint) and is now reaching a fever pitch.

Website such as My.nameis.me sprang up and a wiki started on Geek Feminism.org is listing all the categories of people who may potentially be harmed by real name requirements.

The noise is getting so loud Google last week backed off its “immediate suspension” policy for people violating its “Common Names” requirement and said it would allow four days for violators to make changes. It’s a very small crack say proponents of pseudonyms, but shows that Google is thinking about the issue.  

Social media scholar Danah Boyd, who has assailed Google’s policy, wrote on her Google+ site, “many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.”

Some who find pseudonyms comforting include public school teachers, dissidents, parents with children who want to be on social sites, crime victims, and employees restricted by corporate policy.

The voices could get louder, or at least loud enough to impact Google+ adoption and/or policies. A recent Bloomberg/YouGov survey examining social media trends shows that within the next 12 months Google+ will be the second largest social site behind Facebook.

“You can’t do anything more fundamentally threatening than challenge a person’s identity,” said Bob Alberti, who since 1975 has been using on networks his high school nickname, Albatross. He recently added his name and story to the My.nameis.me Web site.

“It seems like a well intentioned effort [by Google] that was given little thought. Even the smallest amount of thought would have uncovered some of these issues,” he said.

Those that support real names say among other things they raise the civility of online discourse.

Alberti says he thinks Google will eventually make changes “unless it wants to hammer on this issue and become the next MySpace. We have given up a lot of privacy rights in the past 10 years. It is time to think if we want to secure those digitally.”

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she has been following this issue for years given that Facebook has the same policy. She also posted her profile and story on My.nameis.me.

“A lot of people are not comfortable speaking up. Being able to do that under a pseudonym provides them with a level of protection,” said York, who does not use any pseudonyms online. “It’s a global issue. A big issue in respect to safety. Syria is a good example of that.”

The EEF has a policy around anonymity and has been tracking commentary and consequences since the Google+ launch.

“We believe that anonymity is an important component of free expression. But we also recognize that Google and Facebook have a right to create whatever policy they want.” But she is encouraged by Google’s recent policy change. “Clearly they are listening.”

The debate also is raising other questions, including how good is identity data collected by these sites and what does that say about social identities the are used to sign into multiple sites.

Nishant Kaushik, chief architect at Identropy and a noted identity expert, said Google’s game is to have really good data to sell to advertisers, but he wonders just how good that data might be.

“The don’t have any procedures or tools to verify those identities,” he says. “I can say I am John Smith. It is a legit sounding name.”

Kaushik says it’s not real names Google is after but uniquely identifiable names that can be used across domains as a correlating mechanism to collect details about users. “The best way to do that is to insist on the real name concept.”

Kaushik says if the validity of the data is in question it could cause enterprises to more closely inspect consumer social identities, which more and more are being used across domains. Beyond validation, he says what carries a lot of weight is how long an identity has existed and what is its reputation.

He uses Kaliya Hamlin as an example. She is widely known by the name Identity Woman and has built a solid reputation on that name. Her Google+ account, however, was one that was suspended and she added her voice to the outcry.

Kaushik says one new emerging concept is looking at relationships, tweets, conversations, etc. associated with an identity. “That lets you assign a great deal of assurance to that identity.”

Don Thibeau, the executive director at the OpenID Foundation and chairman of the Open Identity Exchange (OIX), says the problems Google must solve are not easy ones. “It is easy to talk about personas in theory, but Google has to solve that in practice,” he said.

Thibeau says that what looks easy in terms of names is just as complex as any other core attributes that identity is based on.

“This is solvable; it will just take some new tools,” says Thibeau. “I think it points to the need in some cases for a trust framework or some other mechanism to describe within a community what names mean and what they don’t mean, or what is meant by names.”

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