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Google+ updates policy to address identity crisis

Google's social network will now let users identify themselves with pseudonyms, as long as those alternative identities are "established."

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
2 min read

Almost since it debuted, Google+ has wrestled with the idea of how users can identify themselves on the social network.

The company wanted to create a service without pseudonyms or impersonation. But Google+, which now claims 90 million users, had plenty of people sign up who are better known by some other identity than their real name. Google has suspended many of those accounts, much to their users' chagrin.

Google is changing the policy to "broaden support" for some pseudonyms, Bradley Horowitz, a co-leader of Google+, wrote this afternoon in a Google+ post. Now Google+ will allow users to be known by "established" pseudonyms, such as Madonna. Google will be the final arbiter of what is established.

Madonna's Google+ page Google; screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

If Google threatens to suspend an account because of a pseudonym, users can appeal by offering, among other things, "proof of an established identity online with a meaningful following." They can also submit references to an established identity offline that might have appeared, for example, in print media. Or, if the assumed-pseudonymous name is official, users can scan and submit official documentation, such as a driver's license.

That doesn't mean Google will automatically let users proceed with an alternative identity. Horowitz said Google would "review the information and typically get back to you within a few days." While those users wait, their old names will continue to be displayed. And new accounts using pseudonyms will appear in a nonpublic, read-only state during the review.

"Today is a small step towards improving the ways in which you can communicate your identity on Google+," Horowitz wrote. "We will be listening to feedback from the community and will continue to refine all aspects of how we handle names and identity over the coming weeks, months, and beyond."

The policy sparked heated debate among digerati when Google+ debuted. Google wants the site to be trustworthy, so that users could know that the people they've chosen to follow are indeed who they say they are. Moreover, real names force a degree of accountability, since users can be called to task for comments spouted online if their true identity is attached.

But there are plenty of arguments for using fake names as well. Political dissidents may want to comment on or organize around brutal leadership. Some folks may be better known in certain circles--in gamer communities, for example--by their handles. Others may simply seek the privacy that the anonymous Web allows.

Google is also changing its identity policy to allow nicknames, maiden names, and names in another script--alongside users' common names. To add an alternate name, users can go to their Google+ profile, click "Edit Profile," select their name, and click "More options."