On Real Names

danah boyd’s recent “‘Real Names’ Policies Are an Abuse of Power” is the best moderate-length case against Google+’s policy that users must sign up under their “real” names (whatever that means). In her words, such policies are “an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.”

My own take is slightly different. Google made two mistakes. The first was a failure of execution: launching the product without thinking through all of the privacy issues, then implementing the policy inconsistently and without transparency. But really, that’s par for the course for Google, which has never been good at looking before it makes privacy leaps, or at customer service. The company’s algorithmic ideology, of course, bears the blame.

Google’s second mistake is more fundamental. Diversity matters, both of people and of spaces. The Internet needs named spaces. It also needs nym-ed spaces, and nameless ones. For some commercial, educational, and civic spaces, the case for identity disclosure makes a lot of sense. But Google wants Google+ to be an everything space: one for informal socializing, rich intellectual debate, political engagement, deep personal and confidential sharing, and so much more. And that’s incompatible with a real names policy, because if you want your space to mirror all of society, you have to accept that society itself has a diversity of named, nym-ed, and nameless spaces. That’s why the Google+ policy is a “radical departure from the way identity and speech interact in the real world,” not because it requires real names as such. It squashes context, and context is central to privacy.

Not to mention the fact the data mined from “real” people is a lot more valuable than that mined from “avatars”.