A Case for Pseudonyms

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A Case for Pseudonyms

Man who puts his hands in front of his face
Picture: Bert23 Original: flickr. License: CC BY-SA

This article is also available in German.

August 4, 2011
Jillian York
By Jillian York

pseu·do·nym [sood-n-im] - noun a fictitious name used by an author to conceal his or her identity; pen name.

There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than the one they were born with. They may be concerned about threats to their lives or livelihoods, or they may risk political or economic retribution. They may wish to prevent discrimination or they may use a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell in a given culture.

Online, the reasons multiply. Internet culture has long encouraged the use of "handles" or "user names," pseudonyms that may or may not be tied to a person’s offline identity. Longtime online inhabitants may have handles that have spanned over twenty years.

Pseudonymous speech has played a critical role throughout history as well. From the literary efforts of George Eliot and Mark Twain to the explicitly political advocacy of Publius in the Federalist Papers or Junius' letters to the Public Advertiser in 18th century London, people have contributed strongly to public debate under pseudonyms and continue to do so to this day.

A new debate around pseudonymity on online platforms has arisen as a result of the identification policy of Google+, which requires users to identify by "the name your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you". This policy is similar to that of Facebook’s which requires users to "provide their real names and information." Google’s policy has in a few short weeks attracted significant attention both within the community and outside of it, sparking debate as to whether a social platform should place limits on identity. A considerable number of Google+ users have already experienced account deactivation as a result of the policy, which Kirrily "Skud" Robert, a former Google employee kicked off the service for identifying as "Skud," has closely documented.

Those in favor of the use of "real names" on social platforms have presented a number of arguments: that real names improve user behavior and create a more civil environment; that real names help prevent against stalking and harassment by making it easier to go after offenders; that a policy requiring real names prevents law enforcement agents from “sneaking in” to the service to spy on users; that real names make users accountable for their actions.

While these arguments are not entirely without merit, they misframe the problem. It is not incumbent upon strict real-name policy advocates to show that policies insisting on the use of real names have an upside. It is incumbent upon them to demonstrate that these benefits outweigh some very serious drawbacks.

Consider, for example, Wael Ghonim, the now-famous Egyptian whose Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said, inspired thousands to join in the January uprising. Though the page was created in the summer of 2010, not long after the death of Khaled Said at the hands of policemen, it wasn’t until later that year that it began to truly gain momentum. And yet, its presence in the protests almost didn’t happen: In November 2010, the page went down after its administrator (now known to have been Ghonim) was reported for using a pseudonym. 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, and there’s no way of knowing how many people have fallen through the cracks, so to speak, because they were unaware of how to appeal an account deactivation. In Ghonim’s case, using his real name would have placed him under considerable risk. And while pseudonymity provides no guarantees, it makes it considerably more difficult for authorities to identify activists.

There are myriad reasons why an individual may feel safer identifying under a name other than their birth name. Teenagers who identify as members of the LGBT community, for example, are regularly harassed online and may prefer to identify online using a pseudonym. Individuals whose spouses or partners work for the government or are well known often wish to conceal aspects of their own lifestyle and may feel more comfortable operating under a different name online. Survivors of domestic abuse who need not to be found by their abusers may wish to alter their name in whole or in part. And anyone with unpopular or dissenting political opinions may choose not to risk their livelihood by identifying with a pseudonym.

As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put forth in deciding 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."

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. While one added value of requiring real names might be increased "civility" of the conversation, it is most certainly to the detriment of diversity.

The bloggers at Geek Feminism have compiled a wiki highlighting the people who are harmed by a real names policy, demonstrating the hundreds of potential reasons why an individual may use a name other than his or her own. Though many examples on the list demonstrate cases of at-risk individuals whose use of a pseudonym is for the purpose of safety, there are other important reasons that one may choose pseudonymity as well.

Take the example of Michael Anti, the Chinese journalist whose birth name is Jing Zhao. Anti was kicked off of Facebook in January of 2011, presumably after someone reported him for using a name other than the one with which he was born. Despite having used the pen name "Michael Anti" for almost a decade, in his writing for the New York Times and elsewhere, Facebook insisted on strict enforcement of its policy.

On Google+, similar examples have arisen, as have false positives, prompting Google+ to change some of its processes, including a shift from immediate account deactivation to offering users a warning and an opportunity to align their name with the policy.

Nevertheless, policies requiring "real" names are nearly impossible to enforce at scale, and as several examples have demonstrated, enforcement tends to be skewed against individuals who are well-known or have enemies, a result of community reporting mechanisms.

It is well within the rights of any company--Google, Facebook, or otherwise--to create policies as they see fit for their services. But it is shortsighted for these companies to suggest that "real name" policies create greater potential for civility, when they only do so at the expense of diversity and free expression. Indeed, a shift toward crafting policies requiring "real" names will have a chilling effect on online free expression.

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Jillian C. York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A longtime blogger and activist, Jillian is particularly interested in Internet filtering at the government level, the policing of content in corporate online spaces, and digital activism. She comes to EFF from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society where she worked on, among other things, the OpenNet Initiative and Herdict projects. Jillian also writes for and is on the board of directors of Global Voices, and in her rare free time, enjoys travel and yoga.

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