Last week, there was an apparent contradiction in Google’s recently published policy in the use of pseudonyms for Google products versus its actual practice. After obtaining additional clarification, that contradiction has gotten far more pronounced.

That is, you must use the name in your wallet as opposed to any other for Google Profiles and Google Plus … except where Google decides for some reason that you don’t have to.

If you’re just after the short version, based on enquiries with a Google spokesperson it boils down to this: Google staff apparently guess whether a name on a Google profile is the name you “go by in daily life”, suspend the profile (and your associated Google Plus account)  if they don’t think it is and then require you to somehow prove that that is what people routinely call you. There apparently isn’t any standard of proof available, other than sending them links to LinkedIn profiles or scans of photo ID.

This is apparently all in the name of “fighting spam” and “preventing fake profiles” (which is, presumably, another spam thing). There’s also the matter of impersonation, which has already caused trouble in the past for people over on Facebook who have lost their accounts because they coincidentally have the same names as celebrities.

“Google’s process in dealing with suspect names seems so arbitrary that it is functionally indistinguishable from capriciousness”

Google’s process in dealing with suspect names seems so arbitrary that it is functionally indistinguishable from capriciousness, especially in light of the fact that just weeks ago, Google seemed to be just fine with pseudonyms, but as Google profiles become increasingly pervasive and linked to other Google products, something has to give.

Further complicating matters are celebrities like Wil Wheaton, and Felicia Day, and people like me, none of whom are using their original names, but instead the public names that we’re routinely known by. Apparently that’s okay, but only if you’re well-known enough. Otherwise you’d be required to change to Richard Wheaton III or Kathryn Day. I doubt either of these two would have their names challenged.

The metric is a vague one: “the name that you commonly go by in daily life.” How much usage constitutes “commonly”. I use the name “Tateru Nino” more often than any other name, and it’s the only name I use online or for work. Is that “commonly” enough? Google seems to think that it is sufficient in my case, but frankly my personal confidence in that is at an ebb.

It feels like anyone with an unusual-sounding name could be suspended at any time, and that their activities and connections to other users through Google products are apparently not considered as a factor in determining the validity of their name. Hundreds of people might know you as (for example) Opensource Obscure, be having conversations with you and sharing links with you on Google Plus and so forth – but that sort of practical legitimacy doesn’t seem to count.

Speaking both personally and professionally, the safety (or lack thereof) of my own Google Account is of less concern to me than that of the people in my Google Plus circles. If they start taking a hit because some admin bod at Google thinks their names ‘sound a bit weird’, then Google Plus is devalued for me.

Almost (but not entirely) everyone in my Google Plus circles uses a pseudonym. It’s quite understandable, being that that pseudonym is the name they’re most likely to be known as to others online. Were they to expose their wallet-names, few would have any idea who they are. It’s also a smart way of reducing the risk of identity-related crimes and maintaining privacy. Many identity experts advocate the use of pseudonymity online for just such reasons.

Legally, in the USA and Australia [edit: and the UK], it’s shaky ground to discriminate on the basis of someone’s name, even if that name is a pseudonym, as a pseudonym has the same legal weight as any other name you might have, in those two countries. Both the USA and Australia [edit: and the UK] allow someone to select and use virtually any name ‘at will’ so long as it is not done with fraudulent intent. You can stick a pseudonym on your tax forms, file a lawsuit with it, register a copyright (although for reduced time-limits of 95/120 years) or trademark with one, or appear in court under one, so long as you’re not doing so in order to violate any law or regulation, or to evade any lawful obligation.

Quite why Google might have reversed course on pseudonymous use of their products is an open question. Google spokespersons would not be drawn out on the topic, and did not address the deep contradiction involved. Perhaps it is a sop held out to advertisers, or perhaps it is merely just an overzealous anti-spam policy. Google says that users may use the appeals process at sign-up (or later) to have the name on their Google account changed to their wallet-names, if they wish and they are able to prove the legitimacy of that name to Google (most likely by photo ID).

What Google has made clear is that for Profiles and Plus (and by extension, eventually for all of Google’s products), only the name in your wallet is ultimately going to suffice – unless you pass some nebulous standard for ‘well-knownness’.

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Categories: Google.

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