I’m just some middle aged white guy, why is name privacy so important to me?

No Hate. Copyright © 2011 by Shadi Fotouhi
No Hate. Copyright © 2011 by Shadi Fotouhi

I’m just another middle-aged, reasonably well-off, American white guy.

So why do I believe so strongly in the importance of letting people control who sees their real name, when you don’t?

I was thinking about that this morning, because I know that if you’d asked me this question three years ago, I would have been strongly pro-privacy, but I would not have been as passionate about it as I am now. What’s changed?

The difference is that in the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time socializing with people who are private about their birth names. I’ve met them on Twitter, and I’ve met them in person. I’ve even driven across the country to meet up with friends whose birth name I didn’t know until I was camped out on their couch. As a result, I’ve heard things that you just don’t hear when people have to use their birth names in public.

When you create a social networking site that requires real names, you create an artificial bubble. What you see is just the nice things in people’s lives, you don’t see what’s really happening. But when people have control over who knows their name, they still talk about cute cats and the latest iPhone and what kind of wine they drank last night, but they also talk about other things. They talk about dealing with their parent’s Alzheimer’s. They talk about how their daughter was missing for three days and got drugged and raped and the police refused to follow up. They talk about how they just lost their job and they’re worried that they’ll end up on the street. They talk about how their boss will fire them if he finds out they’re gay. They talk about how they were sexually abused as a kid. They talk about what it’s like to live in a country where bloggers get thrown in prison. People don’t dare talk about those things with their birth names; not when Google is indexing everything they say.

When you avoid or ban people who protect their birth names, you create an artificial world, one that doesn’t reflect what’s going on in the real world. When you surround yourself only with people who are using their birth names, you get the impression that everything is fine out there. That this is America, and people don’t discriminate, people aren’t ending up on the street through no fault of their own, people aren’t getting stalked to their doorsteps because someone learned their name, and people aren’t being judged by their sexual orientation. You’re surrounded by people who seem to be just like you, because the conversation has been reduced to what’s acceptable at the work watercooler.

The sad thing is, if you’re dealing with something difficult in your life, that bubble also makes you think you’re alone. You think you’re the only one, because nobody else is talking about how they’re going to pay for their parents nursing care, or how hard it is to juggle work and family.

Of course, maybe you don’t want to hear about other people’s problems on Google+. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t particularly want to hear what kind of wine Robert Scoble had last night, so I don’t circle him. If you don’t want to hear about how Jane S is dealing with her son smoking pot, then you don’t have to circle her. But that doesn’t mean that Jane S shouldn’t have a right to join Google+ and comment on your post about the latest merger, or give her opinion on the riots in London, or talk to friends who do want to talk about raising kids. Just because she protects her privacy more than you, doesn’t mean her opinion isn’t valuable. Furthermore, having people with different backgrounds in a discussion makes for a far more educational and interesting conversation.

Google’s name policy is intended to create the illusion that we are all at a fancy restaurant; they’ve explicitly used that metaphor. Unfortunately, in doing so they have denied access to a lot of interesting people; to teachers, lawyers, doctors, activists and government employees; people who aren’t allowed to use their real name to express their real opinions. And they’ve driven away a lot of people with a very legitimate need for privacy; the abused, the victims, the stalked, the discriminated against. That wasn’t Google’s intent, but they believe that losing ten or more percent of the population is a legitimate cost in their goal to create the illusion of normalcy.

I think people who say “I’m more comfortable talking to people who use their real names” or “they should find another social network” don’t realize just what a broad swath of the population is being eliminated by this policy. They don’t realize, because they’ve never had an honest and open conversation with anyone affected by it. They don’t know that their co-worker is gay, or that their favorite barista got raped last month, or that their son’s teacher is an atheist. They don’t know that the person they are banning may be a neighbor or even a friend. They also don’t realize how important online social networks are to people who don’t have the freedom to talk to their peers in any other environment. Social networks aren’t a “game”, they aren’t something you do outside of your “real” life. Social networks are a real place where real people meet, make friends, share ideas, create business relationships, and even end up getting married. And all of those things happen even if they initially meet without sharing their birth names. “Jane S” is just as real a person as “Jane Smith”, and perhaps even more so.

Google certainly has a right to create a fancy restaurant with an illusion that everyone is telling the truth about who they are. But it’s just that, an illusion. Many of us looked at Google as the one internet company that understood the importance of privacy. They stood up to China and left the market when forced to censor. They’ve fought the hackers who have attempted to keep Google from providing secure email to dissidents around the world. We thought that if Google was going to create a social network, they would create one that mirrored the real world. One where people had control over who saw their birth names and who didn’t. A social network that upheld the basic freedoms we expect in a democratic society. Instead, they just created a more authoritarian version of Facebook.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can hit that “Send Feedback” button and tell Google that you don’t want them to discriminate. You can tell them that you’re happy to hear the opinions of people who don’t have the freedom and security to use their birth names. You can tell Google that you want to hear from people who come from different backgrounds than you. You can tell Google that you don’t really mind if that guy with the fabulous photos is called “John” or “JujuBoy”. You can tell Google that you want a social network where people are free to talk about all of their lives, not just the parts they don’t want in the paper tomorrow or in twenty years. Or you can decide that what you really want is a an artificial bubble where everyone talks about technology and cat pictures.

Personally, I prefer reality.

For more details on who is hurt by Google’s policy, read “Who is harmed by a real names policy”(http://j.mp/pojGSo) or my long post here: http://j.mp/pJC2PO (skip to “Who Needs a Pseudonym?”). If you have any other thoughts on why it’s bad to let people control who sees their birth name, please read that post first, I probably discuss them.

For my thoughts on privilege, a word I always used to find personally insulting, read my post here: http://j.mp/o2ApQ3. What I refer to as “being in a bubble” has a lot to do with the concept.

For some excellent personal statements on the importance of name privacy, see http://my.nameis.me/

If you’re wondering where I came up with “ten or more percent of the population”, that’s what I believe is a conservative estimate, based on the number of people on Facebook who don’t use their real names. Those people are disproportionately minorities and women. Read researcher Danah Boyd’s article ““Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power” at http://j.mp/ojrQ3g. I can’t find the original reference to the percentage (can anyone give me a link?), but it was confirmed by my own check of a few Facebook groups I belong to.

Drawing by my daughter, Shadi Fotouhi. (Still too young to join Google+ :). [Well, that was in 2011. As of 2017 she’s graduated from art school and is doing QA for a robotics company.]

Original post on Google+ here: http://j.mp/qlY5jv

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.

Google and the China Syndrome

Here is my letter to Newsweek on the subject of Google censorship in China.

[Note from 2017: Google eventually gave up and pulled out of China rather than be censored and constrained. But American companies continue to work around restrictions and sell censorship tools to oppressive regimes.]

The question of whether to work within an oppressive regime, or hope that a boycott will force change, is always a hard one; and I’m not going to judge Google on their decision.  Keep in mind that such censorship requests don’t just come from China–even France and Germany wish to censor external web sites.  Nonetheless, there is no question in my mind that Yahoo overstepped the bounds when they turned over identifying information on a blogger.

However, in all this fuss we are missing an even more important example of censorship complicity by American companies.  At the same time that the United States is encouraging the people of countries like Iran to exercise their right to disagree with their government, American technology is being used to prevent freedom of speech in those countries. Iran, and other countries in the Middle East, use software from companies like Secure Computing to block their citizens from accessing everything from Iranian bloggers to the BBC Persian News Service.  While Secure Computing denies having sold the software to Iran, there is no question that they didn’t provide sufficient safeguards to prevent the dissemination of the software to such countries.  In a age when word processors get shipped with restrictions which require them to validate their license with a remote server, it seems to me that software which can be used to limit the liberties of people around the world should be locked down quite a bit tighter.  At least Google has the excuse that they are expanding access to some information.  This software is designed solely to provide censorship. It is a weapon against freedom of speech, and it should be regulated like any other weapon.

For more details on the use of American censorship software in other countries, see the OpenNet Initiative at http://www.opennetinitiative.net/.

“Iran’s Internet filtering system is one of the world’s most substantial censorship regimes. Iran has adopted this extensive filtering regime at a time of extraordinary growth in Internet usage among its citizens, as well as a tremendous increase in the number of its citizens who write online in Farsi…. The Internet has become an important information resource in Iran. Polls show that people trust the Internet more than any other media outlet, including domestic television and radio broadcasts. Beginning in 2000, Iranians began to create internal news sites to circumvent the state’s controls over traditional media sources. Blogs, both Iranian and from elsewhere, are increasingly popular, and Iranian servers host thousands of blogs.” – http://www.opennetinitiative.net/studies/iran/