Microsoft Researcher Slams Google+ Real-Name Policy

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Google+’s real-name policy is an abuse of power and harms privacy, according to Microsoft researcher Dana Boyd

A Microsoft researcher came out swinging at the stringent “real-names” policy for Google+ that requires the jettisoning of accounts on the social network that have been forged with fake names or pseudonyms.

Google+ requires its 25 million-plus users to fill out Google user Profiles, public pages on the web that users may fill out “to help connect and find real people in the real world”.

Connecting to ‘the right person’

The company’s position is that by providing a common name, users will be assisting their friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances to find and create “a connection with the right person online”.

Google had initially killed accounts that flew in the face of its Profiles approach – those it detected with fake names or pseudonyms – outright. After considerable backlash, Google revised its real-name policy in late July, pledging to warn users that their fake or pseudonymous account is in violation.

Google now gives those users a chance to provide their real name before the account is suspended. Bradley Horowitz, vice president of Google+, said Google would also provide a “clear indication of how the user can edit their name to conform to our community standards”.

That was not enough to satisfy that those who have been abused or politically persecuted have a voice without putting themselves in harm’s way. Danah Boyd, a well-known speaker on online identity and culture for Microsoft, blasted the real-name policy in a blog post.

Teenagers and people of colour use pseudonyms or nicknames on Facebook, where fake names are also prohibited, Boyd said, adding that people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms online tend to be those who are most marginalised by power structures.

“‘Real-names policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people,” Boyd said. “These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalised people are banding together and speaking out loudly.”


However, most Facebook users who tried to use nicknames on Facebook rarely spoke out or lacked the public platform to do so. Google+, by contrast, is populated by tech-savvy users who also tend to use nicknames but do have such pedestals.

She alluded to bloggers such as by Kirrily “Skud” Robert, who polled users who use pseudonyms online and found myriad reasons for doing so, most of which centre around privacy. Boyd cheered the outcry against Google+.

“What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety,” Boyd wrote. “If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.”

Leaders at Google and Facebook shouldn’t dictate real-name policies based on their assumptions for why users choose to use fake names, noting that there is no set, universal context, Boyd said. She asserted:


“Just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined.”

That is why, Boyd said, enforcing “real names” policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.

Boyd made a compelling argument, but it might be better to look at why real names are so important to Google and Facebook. Google and Facebook may require real names because they want to more accurately target users for contextual advertising – the kind with users’ real names included in ads.

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