Google services should not require real names: Google exec
2013-03-05 0:00

By Gerry Shih | Toronto Sun

In the face of increasing government-led crackdowns on social media, Google Inc should not force Internet users to reveal their real names for some services, including its Google+ social network, said Vint Cerf, a senior Google executive known as a “father of the Internet.”

In an interview with Reuters, Cerf acknowledged that the search giant’s sweeping push in the past 18 months to institute real-name authentication for Google+ and other services has sparked intense debate within its Mountain View, California, headquarters. But he argued that current name policy, which allows for some users to display pseudonyms, offers adequate “choice” in how users choose to represent themselves.

Over the past year, the company has strongly encouraged users to merge their accounts on YouTube, Gmail and other Google properties into a single Google+ identity, the company’s social network offering that asks users to use the “common name” they are known by in the real world.

“Using real names is useful,” Cerf said. “But I don’t think it should be forced on people, and I don’t think we do.”

The comments from one of the Internet industry’s most high-profile thinkers come at a time when the debate over the future of online anonymity is roiling tech circles, with the outcome bearing profound implications for Internet use around the world.

Google and Facebook Inc are leading the charge to encourage Internet users to log on and carry out their digital lives with their offline identities, arguing that greater transparency enhances online transactions and communication.

But Cerf recognized using real names could land social media users under oppressive regimes in “fatal trouble,” and Google will not enforce its policy in such instances. But in many other cases, user authentication should be promoted, he said.

“Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations,” Cerf said. “But there are cases where in the transactions both parties really need to know who are we talking to. So what I’m looking for is not that we shut down anonymity, but rather that we offer an option when needed that can strongly authenticate who the parties are.”

In the past few months Cerf has warned that governments - including democratic ones - are increasingly censoring and filtering the Web, while some regimes are seeking to ban online anonymity in order to control political speech.

“At Google, we see and feel the dangers of the government-led Net crackdown,” he wrote in a editorial in December.


Yet digital rights activists have accused two of the Internet industry’s most influential players - Facebook and Google - of leading the charge against anonymity by pushing its users to identify themselves, which can turn up valuable information for two companies that essentially make money by advertising and tracking user behavior.

When Google+ launched in 2011, its requirement that users display their real names alarmed activists who accused the Web giant of abandoning its “Don’t be evil” corporate mantra to pursue growing rival Facebook. The world’s most popular social network has been the most aggressive in enforcing its policy, with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg once equating keeping multiple identities with “a lack of integrity.”


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