[Security] 2011 in Review: Nymwars

As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2011 and discussing where we are in the fight for a free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy.

This year, Google launched its social networking site, Google Plus. Many Facebook users concerned about the site’s history of privacy violations and Facebook's “real name policy,” which makes it a violation of Facebook’s terms of service to go by a name other than the one on their government-issued ID, were especially excited about the possibility of an alternative social network. Millions of users immediately flocked to Google Plus, setting up accounts, and praising Google's responsiveness. Upon hearing criticism from women and the LGBT community that the “gender” field of all Google Plus profiles was public, Google acted quicklyto give users the option of controlling who can see their gender and referring to the user with a gender-neutral pronoun if their gender was hidden.

But millions of new Google Plus users were in for a surprise. Like Facebook, Google Plus had chosen to implement a "real names" policy. Unlike Facebook, which relies primarily on community reporting to identify allegedly pseudonymous accounts, Google employed an algorithm that identified likely pseudonyms and automatically suspended their accounts. In addition to the myriad of false positives (mononyms, non-standard and non-Western-sounding names, and even the English names often adopted by Hong Kong Chinese), the real names policy led to the suspension of accounts belonging to everyone from well-known writers (Violet Blue) to Google employees (Skud). To add insult to injury, the suspension of a Google Plus account sometimes cut off access to other services, such as Google Reader. Reinstating a suspended account could be an arduous process, which could include sending a copy of a user’s state-issued ID to Google. And even after jumping through all of those hoops, users could find themselves re-suspended several more times.

While acknowledging that Google is free to set its own policies, EFF immediately advocated for the right of users to choose their own names on social networking sites, whether they're women or minorities concerned about their privacy, activists in authoritarian regimes who want to speak out without the threat of government harassment, or users with persistent nicknames or pseudonyms they'd used online for years. EFF had been loudly opposed to Facebook’s “real names” policy for years, pointing out that community policing of real names silences some of the people who need this protection the most—people with unpopular opinions—because opponents can easily have their accounts suspended by reporting them as pseudonymous. By automatically suspending allegedly pseudonymous accounts, Google was taking a bad idea one step further, with a potential for even more widespread chilling effects on freedom of expression than we’d seen on Facebook. This clash between Google and Google Plus users became known at Nymwars, which has expanded into a catch-all term for the debate over the role of pseudonymity online.

Since this summer, Google has gone from pro-actively suspending accounts with non-Western or "suspicious-looking" names, defending the real name policy (later amended to an even more vague and inconsistently-applied "common name" policy), and describing pseudonyms as norm-breaking and undesirable to promising that Google Plus will support pseudonyms in the near future and scaling back on the suspension of pseudonymous accounts.

The Nymwars are not over--Google Plus does not support pseudonyms at this time and some accounts are still being suspended -- but EFF's activism has successfully reframed the debate: if social networks want to be truly inclusive, making room for women, minorities, activists, and people with unpopular opinions, they need to make room for pseudonyms. Expect to see this fight continue in 2012.


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