Google has been wrapped over the knuckles by an unlikely critic: Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist, who is also credited as the “Father of the Internet.”
He was responding to Google’s almost two-year push to require users of its online services to reveal their real names.
Cerf said that by forcing people to use their real names, it can hurt social media users in nations that are ruled by oppressive regimes where such transparency can be a true danger. Cerf made his comments in an interview with Reuters that probed his feelings about Google’s identity policies, which have been reviewed by the company several times since they were implemented in 2011, when it launched its Google+ social network.
Cerf told Reuters that the company’s move toward real-name authentication for Google+ and other services “has sparked intense debate” inside the company. At the same time, he said, the latest name policy does allow some users to display pseudonyms and generally gives enough options to users.
“Using real names is useful,” Cerf said. “But I don’t think it should be forced on people, and I don’t think we do.”
At the same time, Cerf told Reuters, there are legitimate cases where the use of real names online is a good thing.
“Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations,” Cerf said. “But there are cases where in the transactions both parties really need to know who are we talking to. So what I’m looking for is not that we shut down anonymity, but rather that we offer an option when needed that can strongly authenticate who the parties are.”
Meanwhile, it is important that options do exist to allow anonymity to protect users in nations where free speech is not welcome, he told Reuters.
The real name policy implemented by Google with the launch of Google+ attracted immediate criticisms by Web activists in the summer of 2011. The criticisms helped inspire Google to make some changes over its real name policies.
At first, Google suspended Google+ accounts of users who opted for pseudonyms or fake names, without giving them any notice. That “no notice” policy was changed to give users four days notice before their accounts were suspended.
By not using their real names, users are making the Internet community a less friendly place, Google has argued.
Critics have countered that Google wants users to use their real names not for altruistic reasons but to be able to use the information to push ads and other revenue-generating content on behalf of the search giant.
By January 2012, Google did ease up on some of its original real name policies, allowing support for most nicknames and some pseudonyms.
Jeffrey T. Child, an associate professor of communications at Kent State University who studies privacy and online interactions, said that the Google controversy aside, if users don’t like the policies on sites they are using, they are free to go to other social media sites where policies can be different.
Companies like Google do have the right to ask their users to identify themselves by name in order to use their services, said Child.
He does see the problem of using real names in countries with oppressive governments, however, and conceded that such issues are a real danger in such nations.
“But certainly here in the United States we don’t have that, and people aren’t as concerned about Big Brother watching over them,” he said. “A valid reason to ask for real names is that it provides a higher degree of ethics for what people say when they are using their real names.”
At the same time, some users might want to avoid using their real names for legitimate reasons, such as controlling who knows that they have a medical condition such as cancer, said Child. In that case, he said, a person might want to post and share information about a condition without telling the world that they suffer from the disease.
The names issue is perhaps “one of the reasons that the Google+ stuff hasn’t caught on as much” as other social media platforms, because of Google’s push for using real names and pushback from many users, said Child.
“I can see a rational, justified argument for both sides, he said. ”Companies want you to identify yourself so they can identify more about you so they can sell that information. But people may have valid reasons to protect who they are.”
That balance will help determine which social media platforms ultimately succeed and which ones fail, he said.
“If people are OK with the service’s names policies, it will be a successful venture,” said Child. “If they are not OK with that, they will go away from it and it won’t be a successful service.”
Ultimately, people are generally able to find social media sites where they can use their real identities and others where they can use pseudonyms, he said. “We’re in an age when a lot of people use a lot of social media accounts. It’s not necessarily an either/or decision. It can be both.”
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Originally published on eWeek.
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