On Pseudonymity, Privacy and Responsibility on Google+

[This was originally posted on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/117903011098040166012/posts/asuDWWmaFcq) where it went viral for a while. It’s still my most popular post. Since then of course Google finally gave up on their “real names” policy. Turns out it didn’t actually improve the quality of discussion at all–and it hurt people. Facebook, OTOH, still deletes accounts using pseudonyms, and it continues to be a tool of attackers to shut down victims.]


Google has said that they plan to “address” the issue of pseudonymity in the near future. I hope that these thoughts and experiences may help inform that decision.

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
———— 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

This whole persona/pseudonym argument may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but the fact is, the forum for public discourse is no longer the town hall, or newspaper, or fliers on the street. It is here on the Internet, and it is happening in communities like this, hosted by private sector companies. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in these places. As +Lawrence Lessig once said,“the code is the law.” The code that Google applies, the rules they set up now in the software, are going to influence our right to speak out now and in the future. It is imperative that we impress upon Google the importance of providing users with the same rights (and responsibilities) as exist in the society that nurtured Google and brought about its success.

I’m going to try to summarize the discussion as I’ve seen it over the past few weeks. Since this is a long post (tl;dr), here’s a description of what’s coming so if you want, you can skip to the section that you’re interested in.

First I’m going to address some red herrings; arguments that actually have no bearing on pseudonyms. I will explain why I think we should be having this discussion about a company’s product. I’ll explain, through painful personal disclosure, the experience of close friends, and other examples, why someone might want to use a pseudonym. Then I will address the arguments I have heard against pseudonyms (and some of them are quite valid), and what some alternatives might be.

I apologize for the length of this post, I know it could be trimmed.

Black and White Dolls – this is not the future you are looking for

I’ve got a full day, and this post wasn’t in the schedule, but then I got this twit from marshallk

In this video, a young film-maker decides to go and recreate a test once used to help justify desegregation. Young black children are asked which doll they prefer between two almost identical dolls; the white one, or the black one. They overwhelmingly go for the white one. The results are the same when asked which is the “good” doll and which is the “bad” doll. But the heart-wrenching part comes when, having just identified the black doll as the “bad” doll, a little girl is asked which doll looks more like her. She’s not happy with the choice she has to make.

I don’t want to leave you completely depressed though. So here’s another tale of dolls—white and black—that ends up somewhat better. Like the video above, it has a long history, and the better part takes a while to come. I wish I could find a complete version of the song on-line, but you ought to buy the album anyway, it’s all excellent. In the meantime, listen to an excerpt from “Number One in America” on “Coming up for Air” and read the full lyrics below.

Here are the lyrics, courtesy of AHistoricality.

Number One In America
© 1987 David Massengill
In Nineteen hundred and sixty-three
In my hometown, Bristol Tennessee
I was sitting on my mother’s knee
Watching “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on TVAmos was Santa Claus on Christmas Eve
A little girl was tugging at his sleeve
Saying, “Can I have a doll my own color please?”
He Said, “Honey, you can make believe…”Just then came a call on the telephone
It was the mayor, he asked if my daddy was home
This was for his ears alone
Mom and me listened on the second phone

Mayor said, “The freedom Riders are on their way
And they’ll be here by Christmas day
Our laws they vow to disobey
‘Cause our school is as white as the milky way

Well, now we’re really in a fix
We can’t let ’em show us up like country hicks
But once the races mix
It’s good-bye Jim Crow politics

First it’s forty acres and a mule
Then they want to swim in our swimming pool
Pretty soon they’ll be wanting to go to school
Where we were taught the golden rule”

Imagine them telling us how to live
Imagine them telling us how to live

Chorus:
We’re number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Fire hoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their jobs
To stay number one in America.

Ax-handles vs. the right to vote
All white jury, that’s all she wrote
Back of the bus, don’t rock the boat
Separate but equal by the throat

That was twenty-odd years ago
Where’s the change in the status quo?
The freedom land is lying low
it’s shackled down on rotten row

The black skinned man still gets the snub
When he applies to the country club
But he still gets hired to trim the shrubs
Get down on the floor and scrub

There’s a businessman out on his yacht
He’s a rain or sunshine patriot
He says it’s all a commie plot
To be Number One in America…

[Chorus]
The Ku Klux Klan is still around
With a permit to march in my home town
But only on Virginia’s ground
The Tennesse side turned them down

The sheriff stood there with his deputies
Ostensibly to keep the peace
But he made us this guarantee
“By God, They’ll not march into Tennessee!”

The network cameras were triple tiered
We laughed and cried, we hooted and jeered
But mostly we stood there unfeared
‘Til the Ku Klux Klan dissappeared

In some far off distant dawn
When a Black is president and not a pawn
Will they burn crosses on the white house lawn
And talk of all the days bygone

Imagine them telling us how lo live
Imagine them telling us how to live

We’re number one in America…
[Chorus]

Last Christmas Eve at the K-Mart store
A white family there, they was dirt poor
Father said, “Kids, pick one toy – no more
Even though we can ill afford…”

I watched his son choose a basketball
The oldest girl a creole shawl
The littlest girl chose a black skinned doll
And she held it to her chest and all

I watched to see how they’d react
Since they were white and the doll was black
But the mom and dad were matter-of-fact
They checked to see if the doll was cracked

So may you make a rebel stand
Where black and white go hand in hand
Until they reach the freedom land
Where the lion lies down with the lamb

Chorus:
O Number one in America
Number one in America
Beat the drum for Uncle Sam
Overcome in Birmingham
Dynamite in a Baptist church
Four teenaged girls lost in the lurch
Firehoses and the billy clubs
Police dogs and the racist thugs
Turn back the clock to Little Rock
Bought and sold on the auction block
Nightriders and the lynching mobs
Lawmen say they’re only doing their job
To stay number one in America

We shall overcome someday