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Google+ faces thorny online identity issues

Is that really Lady Gaga on Google's social network? Can a political dissident speak freely and anonymously? Google+ favors real-world names, but it's not a simple issue.

Google, trying to take a stand with its new social network, requires people to use real-world names on Google+. The real world, though, turns out to be more complex than a simple rule can accommodate.

Now two weeks old and growing like a weed, Google+ is facing issues that became common once the Internet made people's identity into information that can reach potentially anyone on the planet. With Google+ and the Google Profiles service on which it relies, the company is trying to build a service without pseudonyms, anonymous cowards, or impersonation.

Will the real Lady Gaga on Google+ please stand up?
Will the real Lady Gaga on Google+ please stand up? screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you're connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they're checking out," according to the Google help files for Google+. "For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life."

Most people are known by the name that appears on their driver's license or school registry and probably won't think twice about using that when joining a social network. There are plenty of advantages to that approach: anonymous forums are often degraded by trolling, attacks, and flame wars. Using real names brings some measure of accountability, since your reputation is on the line when you voice an opinion.

But there are acres of gray area, too. Political dissidents may want to avoid persecution. Those who've been harassed may want to avoid more of it. And plenty of people want both online interactions and privacy.

There is some practical merit to the advice that Google's then-Chief Executive Eric Schmidt offered on CNBC: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." But that doesn't mean everything that's not public is bad.

Here's one identity issue that's cropped up already: People's online names, while not on their birth certificates, often are a real persona--reputation and all. Second Life, the virtual world where it was difficult to use a real-world name even if you wanted, is populated by pseudonymous characters. Some of those names didn't sit well with Google, though.

Google suspended the Google+ account of Second Lifer known as Opensource Obscure, according to an account of the situation in Thinq. "After reviewing your profile, we determined that the name you provided violates our community standards," Google said.

Google, which at the end of the month will delete any Google profiles that aren't made public, didn't comment for this story beyond sharing its general position on the matter.

Of avatars and pseudonyms
Another case was that of Rowan Thunder, who uses that name with friends, family, and online but who doesn't have it on legal documents. This time, Google+ reinstated Thunder's account, but not after a period of uncertainty.

"The most frustrating part of the process was the utter and complete lack of official communication on the matter," Thunder said in a Google+ post today. "I received no verification that there was a ticket open, no verification that the matter was being handled, and I waited longer than the 24 hours that they stated several times in the matter of the review process. The way that I actually found out my profile was back was by someone else going to it and finding out it was there again.

William Burns, the object interoperability lead for the IEEE's Virtual World Standards Workgroup who's known as Aeonix Aeon in Second Life, objected to Google's barring of avatars and other pseudonymous online identities in a letter to Google. He also raised the issue of privacy, a major reason some chose not to share their true names online.

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"Avatar profiles as a main profile should be allowed under pseudonymous auspices, with a clear option to denote that such a profile is a pseudonym associated with a virtual environment or game," Burns argued. "Since Avatar identities are not considered fraudulent intent by default, and in fact constitute a perfectly legal pseudonym, they carry the exact same legal weight as a court decreed name change, regardless of the opinions of Google or any private entity...Allow our modern day Mark Twains to have a profile without requiring them to represent themselves as Samuel Clemens. It is the morally correct, 100% legal thing to do--and has far more benefits than refusing it. Give people around the world the right to privacy once again."

Online names have been a contentious issue before. Another problem can hit those with unusual names.

Alicia Istanbul, Caitlin Batman Shaw, and Beta Yee all were initially turned down by Facebook.

Google's largely unsuccessful Knol site still shows if an account holder's identity has been verified.
Google's largely unsuccessful Knol site still shows if an account holder's identity has been verified. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Another question: does requiring real names really mean there won't be impostors online? Right now there are five Lady Gagas on Google+. It would take some pretty good special effects to fake Michael Dell hanging out on Google+'s video chat rooms, but there are plenty of lesser interactions that could fool people.

Twitter offers a service for verified accounts, which can provide assurance of correct identity even if it doesn't help differentiate one John Smith from another.

Google set up a verified identity program through its Knol service. Though Google still shows a green "verified" icon for such people at Knol, there's no sign of it at the Google Profile.

Google+ is in its infancy, and it's certain changes will be coming, and verified identity seems a likely candidate, especially when it opens the door later this year to corporate Google+ accounts. After all, the company very attached to the idea of real identity.