In Defense of Online Anonymity: The Google+ Policy is Wrong

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Google has recently taken some flak for its "real names" policy on Google+ -- a number of users have had their Google+ accounts (and, sometimes, all related accounts) suspended for failing to use their real names.

Google's Senior Vice President of Social, Vic Gundotra, says this policy is to set a positive tone, "like when a restaurant doesn't allow people who aren't wearing shirts to enter."

Gundotra, reportedly speaking to tech blogger Robert Scoble, says the policy isn't about real and legal names -- it's about people who spell their names in weird ways (with upside down characters, for example), or use obviously fake pseudonyms, such as "God, or worse."

I understand the argument for a "real names" policy -- that it keeps people accountable for what they say, and that it promotes a professional, business-like environment. Letting people use pseudonyms on social networks inevitably leads to a little chaos and less credibility.

But if we don't have anonymity on the Internet, we've got nothing.

There are plenty of valid reasons out there for preserving online anonymity. For example, there are people who want to change the world via social and political activism, but who also don't want to be killed for voicing their views. There are people who want to keep what semblance of privacy they have left in the modern-day world. There are people who want to be able to surf the Web without being harassed, bullied, or stalked.

But this is the most valid reason of all: the Internet never forgets.

It's easy to argue for accountability and a "real names" policy when you're bumping up against the limits of the human brain. But online, we're not limited by that -- we're limited by billions of Petabytes, which is not a limit at all.

Think of it this way: it's true; in real life you can't (really) say mean things to people anonymously. So in real life, you probably have to own up to the mean things you say. But there are a lot of limits on how much those things you say really affect your life: people forgive, people forget, people move far away and never look back.

On the Internet, it's not quite the same. If you say something mean and it's in any way linked to your real name, everyone you meet for the next 60 years will just be a click away from knowing what a horrible, awful person you are. Time does not heal on the Internet -- time doesn't even exist on the Internet.

So people who think that getting rid of anonymity on the Internet is in any way a good thing need to take a good, long look at the Internet, and how it's totally different from the human brain.

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