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.

U.S. Soldier’s Guide to Iraq—Circa 1943

U.S. Soldier’s Guide to Iraq—“Circa 1943
MSNBC/Newsweek

You aren’t going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of ‘live and let live.’ Maybe that sounded like a lot of words to you at home. Now you have a chance to prove it to yourself and others. If you can, it’s going to be a better world to live in for all of us.”…

It is a good idea in any foreign country to avoid any religious or political discussions. This is even truer in Iraq than most countries, because it happens that here the Moslems themselves are divided into two factions something like our division into Catholic and Protestant denominations—so don’t put in your two cents worth when Iraqis argue about religion. There are also political differences in Iraq that have puzzled diplomats and statesmen.”

Seventy years ago, and we understood the issues better than we do now.

On Protest – A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court – Chapter XIII by Mark Twain

You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags–that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares “that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient.”

Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the commonwealth’s political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor. That he may be the only one who thinks he sees this decay, does not excuse him; it is his duty to agitate anyway, and it is the duty of the others to vote him down if they do not see the matter as he does.

Need I say more?

Law Schools Against Free Speech – The Supreme Court considers military recruitment on campus. By Dahlia Lithwick

Law Schools Against Free Speech – The Supreme Court considers military recruitment on campus.Slate – Dahlia Lithwick

Chief Justice John Roberts instantly shuts him down, saying the Solomon Amendment “doesn’t insist that you do anything. … It says that if you want our money, you have to let our recruiters on campus.” Moreover, for Roberts, this is not about speech. “This is conduct.” Rosenkranz disagrees. “This is a refusal to send e-mail. This is conduct only in that they are moving molecules. … This is speech.”

There is a certain irony here that both the liberals and conservatives have fallen into the same trap. Fundamentally the federal government has very little control of our lives. However, once you start accepting money from it–you are caught in a dependency trap. For religious conservatives, this means the eradication of support for any particular religion in schools. For anti-discrimination liberals, it means allowing military recruiters into the schools. I confess that I have little sympathy for either side. If you want to be free of federal restrictions–stay clear of federal money.