Google+ rescinds real-name mandate

Reversing its three-year-old policy, Google relents and will now no longer require people to provide their real names to access Google+.

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Vic Gundotra had been Google+'s biggest advocate at the company. The policy change to allow pseudonyms comes only months after his departure. James Martin/CNET

Relenting in the fight against pseudonymity on the Internet, Google on Tuesday lifted its longstanding requirement that Google+ members use their real names.

In an anonymously written Google+ post, the company explained the reversal saying that while the former policy "helped create a community made up of real people," it also reduced the participation of people who were not comfortable using their real names on the social network. As Google tied Google+ deeper into many of its services, including YouTube comments and its user accounts, the policy became an increasingly divisive issue.

We know you've been calling for this change for a while. We know that our names policy has been unclear, and this has led to some unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users. For this we apologize, and we hope that today's change is a step toward making Google+ the welcoming and inclusive place that we want it to be. Thank you for expressing your opinions so passionately, and thanks for continuing to make Google+ the thoughtful community that it is.

At the time of Google+'s launch, Chief Executive Eric Schmidt supported the move by telling CNBC, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

The controversy began soon after the launch of Google+ in 2011, when what people had assumed was a restriction that would go away soon after launch turned out to be a permanent feature of the service.

We've contacted Google for comment and will update the post when there is more information.

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Some people are comfortable having their real names displayed on their Google+ profiles, but many aren't. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Vic Gundotra, the former Google+ chief, staunchly defended the social network but he left the company earlier this year. At the time of Google+'s launch, he likened the restriction to a restaurant that "doesn't allow people who aren't wearing shirts to enter."

The controversy stuck around like a bad meatball. It did not go away, perhaps in part because pseudonymity and anonymity have been defining aspects of Internet culture for two decades. The criticism grew after Google began suspending Google+ accounts of users who ran afoul of the policy, including former Google employees, popular musicians, and writers. However, the account suspensions only affected Google+, not the person's access to other Google services such as Gmail.

Google updated its policy in early 2012 to allow pseudonyms, but only if users provided identification papers to prove they were who they said they were. The integration policy became even more challenging for people who wanted to retain their privacy as Google integrated Google Hangouts, formerly Google Talk and Google Chat, with Google+ when Android 4.4 KitKat launched earlier this year. People who needed to keep their identity hidden but relied on the service were out of luck.

The policy change comes at a time when Google is attempting to position itself as privacy advocate in the wake of the NSA spying scandal. That argument just became much easier to make.

Update at 3:50 p.m. PT with more details on Google+'s history.

 

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