Google's Real Names Policy Is Evil

Google's horrible new policy on using real names in Google+ effectively means that the service is now a danger to real people. You have to ask yourself why a company that pledged to not be evil would do this.

Google has said that if you don't "use your full first and last name in a single language" you're in violation of it's terms of service. If it flags you, you'll have four days to change it or it'll boot your ass. You can't use initials (even that's what you go by). You can't use a pseudonym (even if that's what you go by). And you can't use numbers or symbols (even if they are part of your name).

Æ, e.e. cummings, Malcolm X, and T.S. Eliot would all be in violation of Google's policy. So, too (by my reading) would be Mark Twain, George Eliot and doubly so, R.U. Sirius. I'm pretty sure nobody whose name you actually know in the band U2 can use Google+ or, by extension, Gmail.

It's hard to understand why Google would embark on such a wrong-headed policy. The most likely answer is that this is a pure identity play. Forget social networking, the big goldmine of the future is online identity verification. This could be Google prioritizing getting ahead in that race over its users' preferences and safety.

In other words, it's Google putting money and greed over humanity. It's Google being evil.

Last week, Danah Boyd very eloquently laid out the case against a real names requirement. In short, if you don't let people use pseudonyms online, you're putting people in danger. Real, physical, danger.

Let's say you are a gay teen considering suicide who wants to reach out online without fear of your family finding out. Or maybe you are a whistleblower who fears retribution. Or a person of faith who could be subject to religious persecution. Or a dissident who fears imprisonment. A battered wife seeking shelter.

Or maybe you're somebody whose actual real name violates Google's policy. For example, it doesn't allow any numbers or symbols. So, sorry, Jennifer 8. Lee. I know you're a highly-respected and well-known journalist, but your name has a number in it so you've got four days to change that or you can fuck off back to Facebook.

And I don't know what the heck Prince is going to do about this.

The easy answer, of course, is simply to not use Google+. And I'm quite sure some people will posit that as a solution. But there are two reasons that's not the answer.

First, Google is too big and too important. As goes Google so goes the Web. It is one of a handful of companies that has real power and influence, capable of changing the status quo all on its own. If this becomes Google's universal policy, soon it will be that of the Internet itself.

Second, and this is related to the first, is that Google+ is a community. And we as a society we have a duty to work to make our communities free and open. We have a duty to change what is wrong, rather than to simply say "move along." Imagine, for example, if instead of working to change civil rights laws in the American South, the freedom riders had just offered one-way bus tickets to Massachusetts. If you don't like it in Birmingham, you should just move to Boston.

Google is one of the largest companies in the world, it touches billions of people. Governments regularly subpoena data from it. The things it knows about you matter. A lot.

Of course, Google does make it easy to quit Plus. It does offer a data liberation service that lets you take everything you've done on Google+ and put it on your hard drive.

Yet while it's admirable that Google is offering ways to liberate data, it also ought to be offering to liberate its users from fear of persecution. Sadly, right now, it's doing just the opposite.


You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.