YouTube tries to push for real names: Google doesn't get it

2012-07-27 17:18

After the drama over Google+ demanding “real names”, and the claim that they were now accepting pseudonyms (they aren’t, for real people), and after a friend had her G+ account deleted because someone somewhere decided the name wasn’t good enough, I suppose I sort of accepted that Google was constitutionally incapable of comprehending that there could ever be legitimate reasons for people to want any kind of privacy.

It’s easy for a company run by extremely wealthy white males living in the US to view the issue as insignificant. Many of the problems other people face simply can’t happen to them. Sergey Brin is not at risk of being gang-raped by people determined to show him that his claimed gender is incorrect, for instance.

More troubling, though, is that the entire thing is based on a lie, or rather a pair of lies.

Lie #1: There is no risk if you aren’t doing anything bad.

You’d think this one would be sufficiently obviously stupid that people wouldn’t even bother advancing it. The world is full of victims of stalking, people who are gay or transgendered, people whose names carry ethnic connotations. People who would face genuine risk of harm if it were easy to find them, in short. There’s more to this, but a brief detour is in order:

Lie #2: Being under their real names will discourage trolls and abusers.

This is, in practice, not true. It’s especially not true for people who have common names; there’s no risk to someone named John Smith posting nasty comments, for instance. But beyond that, it’s not true because the sorts of people who engage in online bullying are not in general the sorts of people who are much concerned about their reputation. Even if they in theory ought to be afraid of consequences, they aren’t.

But let’s stop for a moment and consider that phrase: Afraid of consequences. See the gimmick here? It’s not just that the abusers aren’t likely to actually be afraid. It’s that to even imagine that they would be, you have to accept that being identified online can be dangerous. And once you consider that the online world provides a rich supply of people who are apparently inclined to bullying, we get to the real meat of the issue:

If you are unhappy with the way people behave when all they can do is post nasty stuff online, what makes you think that making it easy for them to find the home addresses and workplaces of their victims will improve things?

And that’s the real problem; it’s not just that pushing towards the use of real names won’t help. It’s that it will make things dramatically worse. It will give the abusers a great deal of extra power over their victims. You can just ignore obnoxious comments; you can’t just ignore photos of your house in crosshairs.

And the thing is, it’s been long enough that we all know that real names don’t fix things. So why do it? Probably because real names are more valuable to advertisers.

You remember when Google’s corporate ethos used to be “don’t be evil”? That was a long time ago.

Peter Seebach