18 July 2011

Google+ name policy: three seven fatuous arguments

Following the discussion of Google’s profile name policy, I see some ridiculous arguments crop up with tedious regularity.

“It’s to stop spam.”

Looking at my spam folder, it’s full of mail from spammers with autogenerated fake names that would pass Google’s smell test: “Denese Mozelle”, “Adrien Lavona”, “Mohammad Alitahir”, “Letisha Lorri”, “Kelli Thomas”, and so on. If you don’t understand how trivially easy it is to bulk generate plausible WASPy names for spamming Google+, ask any programmer. If all else fails, spammers are quite willing to hack and steal account credentials of legitimate accounts in order to spam social networks.

If you haven’t had fake profiles with plausible looking female names try to friend you on Twitter and Facebook so they can invite you to visit their sexy web sites, you can’t have been using those services much. Spammers will even set up networks of web sites to try and push their spam through. Thinking up a plausible e-mail won’t hold them back for more than a few seconds.

There’s also the problem that spammers need to get you to follow them, for their ongoing spam to be effective on Google Plus. Conclusion: The anti-spam argument is bogus. The policy does nothing to stop spam.

“It’s to stop trolls.”

Trolls too have no problem inventing plausible names. If you play online video games, you’ll quickly discover plenty of trolls and griefers, even on services where you have to have a credit card number to get access.

In addition, some of the most famous/infamous trolls have used their real names — ROGER DAVID CARASSO, Richard Sexton, Jason Fortuny, John Dvorak, and so on. (I should note that these examples aren’t all full-time trolls, and some of them have retired from trolling at this point.) Those are just a few examples where I know the names are real; there are endless examples of trolls with names that would pass the Google Plus “smell test”, but which I don’t know are real — Adrian Chen, David Thorne, Joel Johnson of Gizmodo, and so on.

And again, the trolls need to get you to follow them and respond to them. Conclusion: The anti-troll argument is bogus, there are plenty of trolls with real or real-sounding names.

What really discourages trolls and spammers is giving users the tools to block them permanently, and recommend similar blocking to friends.

“It’s to stop people from being rude.”

Facebook has the same policy regarding real names. Have you seen any lack of rudeness on Facebook? Every now and again a page will fill up with bile and death threats, and there are entire web sites dedicated to cataloging everyday Facebook rudeness.

There’s also scientific research on online disinhibition that suggests that people flame more when they know each other’s identities.

“It’s not a problem for me personally.”

“TV censorship isn’t a problem for me, I don’t watch TV.”

“E coli contamination of meat isn’t a problem for me, I’m a vegetarian.”

“Sexism isn’t a problem for me, I’m male.”

“Anti-semitism isn’t a problem for me, I’m not Jewish.”

“The unemployment rate isn’t a problem for me, I have a job.”

See how none of these statements contribute anything positive to discussion of the appropriate topics, and would tend to offend those for whom the issue is a problem?

Conclusion: It’s a good idea to pause and think before ever saying “It’s not a problem for me” when discussing any contentious issue. Maybe there’s a case where it actually contributes useful information to say it, but off the top of my head I can’t think of one.

There are plenty of legitimate real-world situations where someone has a valid reason for wishing to use a pseudonym online, or wishing to use a name that doesn’t fit Google’s restrictions of “firstname and lastname in that order”. Here are a few:

  • Women who are suffering stalking or harrassment online.
  • People who are from foreign countries where names are handled differently, such as Korea. (And even if you have a western-style name on your driver’s license, that doesn’t mean you want that used as your name in a social context.)
  • People who live somewhere where your real name is whatever you say it is, like the UK.

So that’s tens of millions of people right there. So just because you have no valid reason or excuse to use a name other than the one on your driver’s license, doesn’t even begin to mean that nobody else does.

“Well, don’t use it then.”

Like the “It’s not a problem for me” argument, this one adds nothing to the discussion.

“Fox news is biased? Don’t watch it then.”

“Driving while texting is dangerous? Don’t do it then.”

“Cigarette smoke causes cancer? So don’t go places that allow smoking.”

The policies set by Google and Facebook determine many details of our social interactions on the Internet. If Google were to decide to block your personal web site, you would effectively be invisible on the Internet, and saying “Well, people should use a different search engine then” wouldn’t be any help to you.

In addition, the mere existence of personal choice does not mean we should refrain from criticism of corporations and their products.

“It’s so people can find you.”

If most of your friends call you by your nickname in real life, and almost all your Internet contacts know you by your nickname, then that’s going to be the name people will use to search for you in Google+. People aren’t going to search for Stefani Germanotta.

Yet there are plenty of examples where Google have suspended people’s profiles and tried to force them to use a name hardly anyone knows them by, because the name someone is most commonly known by is not necessarily at all similar to their legal name.

“Just use your real name and there’s no problem.”

First of all, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world whose names do not obey the rules “must be written as firstname lastname in plain ASCII”.

Secondly, there are many people who are harmed by being forced to use a “real name”.

Thirdly, the rules presented by Google are ambiguous if the name you are most commonly known by is not your legal name. It’s quite possible in many countries to have credit cards and other everyday identification with names other than the name by which you are known to the government.

© mathew 2017