November 6, 2011

Facebook and Google+ identities: online, real, common, fake

Cartoon by Dave Walker
Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

The 'nymwars'

After doing a lot of reading about the online identity issue, I wanted to share some of what I've found with you. I know that many might initially think that someone who uses a "fake" name does it for nefarious purposes. It is often true among cyberbullies and spammers. That can't be denied. But the 'nymwars' (name wars) is an important issue for many other people for many legitimate personal, professional, political, or safety reasons, especially those living in less democratic and violent societies.

The 'nymwars' is a hot topic and some of the articles I ran across point out the futility and ridiculousness of the "real name" policies. In some cases, the legal names of persons of foreign nationalities just haven't been real-sounding enough for Facebook and Google+ employees. In other cases, even real American ('center of the universe') names just don't sound real to the powers that be, as in the case of Violet Blue, a high-profile author whose account was terminated by Google+.

The "real name" policy is not something that can be realistically enforced unless these mega companies are going to ask all umpteen million users to submit government identification. Until then enforcement is most likely to come by two means: 1) Extremely unusual or obviously unreal names, or 2) complaints from other users. As in my Facebook case, a malicious user complaint could be merely because someone doesn't like your political opinions or doesn't want others to see the information that you are sharing. In some parts of the world, being able to so easily silence another user could severely limit freedom of expression.

After a lot of bad publicity and significant pressure from the nymwars, Google+ just announced that they have reconsidered their "real name" policy. But from what I've read, they may adopt Facebook's policy of requiring a government issued photo ID. I'm not willing to do that.

I imagine that most of you would also be offended or concerned about your own privacy if you were asked to submit a copy of your ID merely for a casual online account.

What's in a name?

I understand the reasons for these policies. The internet can sometimes be a very unpleasant place because of trolls, spammers, and cyber bullies. I commend Google+ and Facebook for trying to make the internet a more civil place. YouTube comments are a perfect example of "freedom of speech" gone totally wrong.

On the other hand, a real "sounding" name can be meaningless, and does nothing to protect other users. This article reported that a man created 130 Facebook pages just to harass his ex-girlfriend. Apparently his fake names sounded real while mine didn't. Facebook's real name police didn't protect the victim.

Currently, I am again being cyberstalked by someone who purports to be using his real name. He follows the typical pattern of cyberstalkers: Many cyberstalkers try to damage the reputation of their victim with false accusations intended to turn other people against them. They may set up their own websites, blogs or user pages for this purpose. More commonly they will repititiously post defamatory or derogatory statements about their stalking target on web pages, message boards, and in guest books. In some cases, they may pose as the identity of the victim and publish material in the victim's name that defames or ridicules others. Some cyber-bullies may also send threatening, harassing, and obscene emails and instant messages to the victims and their friends (sometimes using anonymizer email services), or post rumors, gossip, or false "quotes" attributed to the victim. Google's name polices have not protected me from cyberstalking, and in fact, Google's Blogger policy specifically does not protect against personal attacks or alleged defamation.

This points out the irony of the "real name" policies. I felt that using a false name would be dishonest. But as it turns out, if I had lied and said I was Maria Garcia or Jane Thompson, neither Facebook nor Google+ would have questioned my name and Facebook wouldn't have demanded an official government-issued photo identification. Most readers would have never questioned the lie either.

So what these "real name" policies actually do is to encourage dishonesty in people, who for valid reasons, don't feel they can or should use their legal name. After all, we aren't opening a bank account or applying for food stamps, we are just being "social", as they tell us we should be. Most importantly, what these policies do not do is to protect users against abusers or cyberstalkers.

What can be done to keep the internet "civil"?

I realize that it is extremely difficult for large companies to control abusers, but I think that they should at least make a cursory review for actual abuse before terminating someone's account. For some online services, one way that I've had to verify that I am who I say I am, the author of La Gringa's Blogicito, was to put a code provided by the company in the HTML section of my website, very simple to do and virtually impossible for anyone else to fake.

Robert Scoble, celebrity geek blogger, gave a long list of suggestions to Google+ about this issue, including the one I mentioned above. He also suggests implementing features similar to the Disqus commenting system (which I use here on the Blogicito). Disqus makes it very easy to almost completely eliminate spam and abuse. Google+ could make it easier to allow users to decide to block "fake posters" if they don't want to see them, but still allow others to see them if they want to. Scoble also recommends adapting an internet "clout" system. That might not be so different from what Google now uses to determine which search results go on top.

Update on my Facebook Status

The online petition to reinstate my Facebook account has received over 500 signatures. Thank you all so much. The petition will be closed and sent to Mark Zuckerberg soon. If you haven't signed yet, please hurry.

Dr. Ulf Erlingsson set up a page Reinstate La Gringa's Facebook Account. If you are on Facebook, I hope that you will join it.

Maybe nothing will be resolved in my case but I have a bit of hope if this article is true. It says that in this case, someone was able to have their FB account restored with an apology from FB.
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