Google ruffled feathers when it simply shut down thousands of Google+ accounts citing a policy that you must use your real name for your Google+ profile. Google since backed off a little on how aggressive it is with enforcement, but the policy itself sparked an online debate about the virtues of pseudonyms and the value of using your real name.
What’s In a Name?
It basically comes down to this–Google has a policy in place that is designed to cut down on the possibility of social network spam and phishing attacks by ensuring that everyone on Google+ is transparent, and really is who they say they are. The policy states, “Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out.”
Opponents argue that banning the use of pseudonyms changes the social networking dynamic, or that dissidents in some nations could place themselves in danger by using their real name, and they need an outlet for sharing information without risking their lives. If you break the Google policy down, though, it doesn’t really seem to enforce the use of a “real” name.
Define “Real Name”
Why? Well, there is never any valid authentication or validation of my identity when I set up a Google profile. I can set up a Gmail account without any proof at all of my identity. The closest it comes to verifying who I am is that it requires a verification code via either text message or voice call. I chose text message, and Google could ostensibly associate my Google profile with the identity tied to that mobile phone number–but it is also possible that I asked to borrow a stranger’s mobile phone for a minute just to receive the verification text. Google doesn’t know one way or the other.
When I receive an email invitation, or click on a Google+ invitation link to set up a Google+ profile, it automatically populates the first and last name with the information I supplied for my Gmail account. Again, Google has no idea if this information is valid or not, and it doesn’t make any attempt to authenticate my identity. Google just takes my word for it.
What the Google policy on real names states is that you must use your full first and last name in a single language, avoid the use of unusual characters, your profile must represent an individual (not a couple, team, group, business, etc.), and that you can’t impersonate anyone. But, since Google has no identity validation process you don’t have to use your real name–just some real name.
I haven’t confirmed my theory with Google, but as far as I can tell as long as you enter a first and last name that seem relatively normal, don’t use numbers or weird punctuation, only represent a single individual, and don’t try to claim that you are Ashton Kutcher or Lady Gaga (unless you are–no offense to Ashton Kutcher or Lady Gaga), you should be fine.
“Real” to Who?
Speaking of Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga, though, those two pose a problem for the Google policy on names–as do many famous personalities. Kutcher’s name is actually “Christopher Ashton Kutcher”, and Lady Gaga is really “Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta”. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart’s real name is “Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz”, the entertainer known as Pink is “Alecia Beth Moore”, and Gene Simmons of KISS fame was born “Chaim Weitz”.
According to Google policy, these people should use their real full first and last name, and enter alternate nicknames, maiden names, and other “pseudonyms” in the “Other names” section of the Google+ profile. Google’s Bradley Horowitz explains, “If you add nicknames, maiden names, etc. to the “Other names” portion of your G+ profile, those with permission to view those fields can search for you using that term. For example: some of my colleagues call me “elatable,” a pseudonym I’ve used on many services, so I’ve added it to my list of other names.”
I highly doubt that Google will shut down Ashton Kutcher’s or Lady Gaga’s Google+ profiles just because they don’t use the names written on their birth certificates. They each have a full first and last name (although “Lady” and “Gaga” could be debated) that don’t use any numbers, punctuation or special characters. They are only representing themselves as an individual, and they are not impersonating anyone else. Technically, it passes the Google “real name” test.
The bottom line is that there is really nothing stopping the political dissidents of the world–or anyone else who may have some reason to choose to hide their true identity–from using a pseudonym. The pseudonym just needs to conform to the “real name” rules.
As a quick side note: Ashton Kutcher does, in fact, have a Google+ profile, and it seems that he has followed Horowitz’ advice, but in reverse. His primary profile seems to be “Ashton Kutcher”, but if you search for “Christopher Kutcher” you will also find his profile which suggests that Kutcher has included “Christopher Kutcher” in the “Other names” section of his Google+ profile.
As for Lady Gaga–Google should do a search for that name and get to work policing the “real names” policy.