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Anonymity vs. real names on social networks

Let's cut to the chase: This one is really about whether Facebook and the new kid on the block, Google+, should get to throw their considerable weight around by requiring that users post to their social-networking sites using real names.

And while Facebook shows no sign of abandoning its longtime real-names requirement, Google has already surrendered on the main point, indicating that it will soon allow for the use of pseudonyms (devilish details to come). 

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Real names are important, proponents of such policies argue, because their use fosters civil discourse and discourages behavior that exceeds boorishness by too often escalating into bullying and other forms of harassment. The ability of site operators and user communities to police themselves by holding individuals accountable benefits the group, they maintain.

Yes, but ...

"The problem with the civility argument is that it doesn't tell the whole story," writes Eva Galperin, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a recent blog post. "Not only is uncivil discourse alive and well in venues with real name policies (such as Facebook), the argument willfully ignores the many voices that are silenced in the name of shutting up trolls: activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistleblowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view that can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beat-up, or harassed for speaking out."

As is the case with most arguments, of course, that criticism doesn't tell the whole story either. The Internet in all of its vastness offers ample opportunities to be heard for those who for whatever reason cannot use their real names on Facebook or, at least for the moment, Google+. Certainly there is room for a variety of communities, both those that allow anonymous speech and those that prohibit it.

Yet there is only one Facebook and one Google, and to be excluded from either is no small matter.

Critics of the real-names requirements also contend that it is a business consideration - monetizing those real names - that is driving the policies, as much as if not more than behavioral concerns.

Since launching Google+ this summer, Google has absorbed a barrage of criticism over the real-names policy; enough to get the company to apparently wave the white flag. Vic Gundotra, Google senior vice president for engineering, said recently, "We plan to support pseudonyms in the future ... it's coming ... it's complicated to get this right."

Tech argument: Facebook vs. Google+ vs. Twitter vs. LinkedIn

While the news was welcomed by most critics - EFF called the announcement a surrender -- others say they are withholding judgment until Google offers details.

Be sure of this much: The chances that Google can make everyone happy on this are just about zero.

Paul McNamara is a news editor at Network World and writes Buzzblog. He can be reached at [email protected]

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