EFF: Google's Common Name Policy Harms Freedom of Expression

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) criticizes Google's common name policy and points out that making the use of real names on Google+ mandatory is detrimental to diversity and freedom of expression.

Google generated a lot of controversy when it decided to suspend the Google+ accounts of people suspected of not using their real names on the social network.

While much of the frustration came from offenders not getting a chance to correct the problem and the process also affecting innocent people, the incident sparked a discussion about the implications of such restrictive name policies.

Bloggers from Geek Feminism have compiled a long list of cases when the use of real names can be harmful. The outlined risks range from harassment, discrimination and physical danger, to imprisonment or even execution in countries with oppressive regimes.

While the EFF agrees that a real name policy might increase civility, a claim made by Google's senior vice-president for social Vic Gundotra, it believes the drawbacks outweigh any benefits.

"Just as using 'real' names can have real consequences, mandating the use of 'real' names can too, excluding from the conversation anyone who fears retribution for sharing their views," says EFF's Jillian York.

York, who serves as the organization's director for international freedom of expression, exemplifies with the case of Google employee and Egyptian revolution hero Wael Ghonim who got banned from Facebook at a crucial time because of a similar policy.

Ghonim used a pseudonym to administer the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page that proved instrumental to motivating young Egyptians to launch protests all over the country.

"While Facebook was able to offer a solution, allowing an 'identified' person to step in for Ghonim, this case was largely exceptional, owing to Ghonim’s ability to connect to Facebook staff and solve the problem. Not everyone has these types of connections," York notes.

To get her point across, the EFF activist quotes from the ruling of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995):

"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hand of an intolerant society.

"The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse."

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