In July 2011, Google+ started suspending user accounts for using pseudonyms or other names which violated their community standards.
This became the major part of the online pseudonym discussion called Nymwars.
Summary of the problem
Many people use names online which do not match their government-issued ID, whether for reasons of privacy, to avoid harassment or stereotyping, or for many other reasons. We have documented many reasons why people might want to be pseudonymous at Who is harmed by a "Real Names" policy? Specific to this wiki, it's worth noting that women are disproportionately affected by a policy like this.
In addition to Google+'s policy being misguided and harmful to many users, the implementation of the policy was also problematic, leading to many users being incorrectly suspended or having difficulty getting their accounts back.
Timeline of events
(Just an overview.)
- July 5th, 2011 -- Google+ field trial launched
- July 8th, 2011 -- early account suspensions, initial press/blog coverage
- July 22nd, 2011 -- mass account suspensions, widespread press/blog coverage
- July 25th, 2011 -- statement from Bradley Horowitz, Google VP Product, promising better process/implementation
- July 15, 2014 -- statement on Google+ "Today, we are taking the last step: there are no more restrictions on what name you can use."
Reasons given (or suggested) for the policy
The Google+ Community Standards say, "To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you."
However, no particular naming policy can prevent spam. If a policy requires real(-looking) names, then spammers will simply give themselves names that pass the policy.
Google already knows that algorithmic detection (possibly assisted by user flagging) is the best way to prevent spam, and that's what they use in web search and in GMail.
To prevent fake profiles/impersonation
This is already covered elsewhere in the community standards ("Do not use our products to impersonate other people.") and is grounds for suspension in any case. Requiring names that look a certain way does not actually give any additional protection against this.
To help people find you
People can most easily find you under the name you're known by. For many people, this is not the name on their ID, or may not look like a WASP name.
Types of accounts suspended
The following types of accounts have been documented as being suspended. Most of these categories are, arguably, wrongful suspensions:
- Accounts of people with perfectly normal two-part names of European origin (aka WASP names), like Brien Calloway, Sean-Maurice Hunt
- Accounts of celebrities and other well known public figures (using ordinary, two-part, WASPy names), such as William Shatner and Ariana Huffington
- People with unusual names, such as Fox Magrathea Circe
- People who include their nicknames as middle names, such as Bernard "ben" Tremblay and Limor "LadyAda" Fried
- Legally monomymous people, such as Sai
- People who are commonly known, online and offline, by a name that's not on their government ID, such as: Ping (a Google employee!), Skud, CZ Unit
- People with disabilities, such as M Monica
- People with privacy concerns due to harassment, stalking, or abuse, such as M Monica and BugGirl
- Names from non-WASPy cultures, including Urdu, Australian Aboriginal, and names following the conventions used in Hong Kong.
- Transgender people (anyone got a public example?)
- Long-standing and well-known Virtual World Avatar names, like Botgirl Questi
Other notes regarding suspensions and exemptions
- Some people were suspended multiple times, eg. CZ Unit
- Google SVP of Social, Vic Gundotra, has admitted that the name he uses is not what appears on his ID, yet is permitted on Google+.
- Celebrities such as Lady Gaga and 50 Cent are permitted/have not been suspended.
There is some argument that Google+'s policies may be illegal.
Google's policies may break European privacy law.
Jay Blanc has been posting extensively about this:
- Apparently confirmed. If Google force a European Account Holder to have a public Google Profile with their "real name" on it, they are breaking the law.
- Rebuttals of arguments against the first post
- Further rebuttals
- Debunking common questions/misconceptions
The Register reports that the UK's Information Commissioner's Office is "looking into it".
Under US law:
- One may be employed, do business, and enter into other contracts, and sue and be sued under any name they choose at will (Lindon v. First National Bank 10 F. 894, Coppage v. Kansas 236 U.S. 1, In re McUlta 189 F. 250).
- Such a change carries exactly the same legal weight as a court-decreed name change as long as it is not done with fraudulent intent (In re McUlta 189 F. 250, Christianson v. King County 196 F. 791, United States v. McKay 2 F.2d 257).
Other common law countries
Most other common law countries (Australia, Canada, etc) have similar laws regarding use of a name other than what is on your government ID, i.e. that you can legally use any name you choose, as long as you're not doing so for fraudulent purposes.
Responses and commentary
- A Case for Pseudonyms (EFF)
- In-depth analysis of the issues by Kee Hinckey
- My Name is Me: Be Yourself Online: statements in support of pseudonymity, and personal stories about identity online
Nymwars has attracted an enormous amount of attention from the media and bloggers. Roundups include:
Elsewhere: Anti-pseudonym bingo