What's in a name? In the online world, everything


Facebook and Google are both encountering problems with their real-name policies

IN REAL life, I’m known as Danny O’Brien. Online, I’m better known as “Danny O Brien”, “Danny Brien”, or occasionally “Danny O#39;Brien”.

If you have an apostrophe in your surname, you may have had the same problem.

When western programmers write code that accepts users’ names, they think of their colleagues and their strictly Latin alphabet names. You’d think with the number of proud Irish-Americans in the US, they would think to include apostrophes, but it’s often difficult for coders to consider the wild variety of the human condition – even for something as prosaic as what’s in a name.

Software maker Patrick McKenzie on his Kalzumeus.com website has created a list of falsehoods programmers believe about names. The list, which has grown to more than 40 commonplace “exceptions”, includes such ideas as: people’s names are assigned at birth; people’s names won’t contain any well-known English swearwords; and there is one way to spell someone’s name. But perhaps the most prevalent misconception that programmers cling to about names is that you have a single definitive name that stands above all the others – and that single name matches your legal identity.

Such an idea is burned into the nature of Facebook, for instance, which has a “real name” policy.

You can only have one account on Facebook, and that account is associated with a single “real name”. If you’re not using your real name, you can be thrown off the network.

It’s not just to make coding easier, however. It’s also there to make policing easier. Many users of the internet are uncomfortable with the pseudonymity that dominates much of it: the fact that anyone can pluck a name out of the ether and write comments or create entire websites where they are only known by that name.

Such pseudonyms imply a deeper anonymity online, and many believe this leads to the incivility that marks many an online flame war.

Scratch the social theories of both the wider internet and Facebook, though, and you hit a hard layer of programming reality. Pseudonymity exists online because proving your real identity is almost impossible. The truth is that real-name policies don’t make policing easier; they just provide a convenient excuse to police a simple, programmable field, rather than the trickier, subtler world of online civility.

Facebook has 750 million users and 2,000 employees. It cannot police its real-name policy with anything but automated systems. It can only enforce its real-name policy in retrospective and scatter-gun fashion. That means some people whose names don’t fit the standard pigeonholes are the only ones who face any kind of examination. Users who receive a high number of user complaints must surely also attract excessive attention – such as that of Chinese journalist Michael Anti, who was thrown off the site for refusing to change his account name from that of his nom de plume to that of his birth name. Or Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, whose name was initially discarded by Facebook for being obviously fraudulent. Native American author Owl Goingback was blocked from joining Facebook, and Robin Kills The Enemy was suspended and had to scan in identity documents to prove her name.

Now Google, with its Facebook competitor, Google+, has decided to pursue a similar policy. Google, a company that takes pride in using algorithms over human intelligence, has immediately run into the same problems as Facebook. A person whose surname is Dick was thrown off for obscenity. Real celebrities have had their accounts suspended for being fraudulent versions of themselves.

Google’s struggles with this issue have been conducted in the full glare of a new service from an established name with a brand that depends on trust and flexibility. Like Facebook, the company appears to be divided internally about how it should enforce its policy – and how much public clarity it should give to its policies.

Facebook and Google can’t tell people how they judge the “real names” from the false, for the same reason that they can’t tell you how they decide what is spam and what isn’t. If they told everyone their automated methods, they must worry that the badly behaved would simply use those rules to evade the enforcement.

If they spelled out the algorithm, other algorithms would be used against them to get around the rules.

Ultimately, a real-name policy is neither a programming issue nor some well-grounded decree about how people should select their online names. It is an attempt to enforce civil behaviour through indirect means. As such, it disproportionately affects those who do not fit in with its rigorous definitions. Stand out from the crowd, or act in a controversial manner, and your name will be used against you.

Facebook and Google can make up whatever rules they want to govern their site.

But if you’re big enough to hold entire communities within your private online space, those communities will eventually demand fair rules among themselves.

Fairness requires transparency, equitability and humanity. Whether a name is “real” or not is not something that can be determined by an algorithm. It needs public rules, a public process, and a human being at the end of it. Code cannot be the judge of whether a name is “real”, or whether your real name in the online world should inherit your heritage, your traditions, your reputation – or your apostrophe.