(Note: see the end of this post for ongoing updates.)

The following is a true story. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Connect.Me is a founding member of the Startup Circle of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium (PDEC) – a group of companies working to create new products and services based on the ethical use of personal data online.

One of the key tenets of the personal data ecosystem is user-centric identity – that people should be able to choose the digital identity credentials they wish to use in any particular context, as long as those identity credentials support the accountability requirements of that context.

The founder and Executive Director of PDEC is Kaliya, who prefers not to use her last name, and in fact has become widely known throughout the user-centric digital identity industry by her professional moniker and blog name, Identitywoman. (In fact many people in the industry do not know her by any other name.)

Google’s now infamous Real Names Policy, which requires Google+ users to use “the name they are known by in real life”, resulted in Kaliya’s Google+ account being suspended two weeks ago.

On Thursday Google revised the policy to stop immediately suspending users and rather give them four days to “revise their Google profile to comply with the policy” before they are suspended.

In other words, no change to the policy, just how quickly Google will enforce it.

What does it say about the viability of this policy when the Executive Director of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, an icon in the landscape of Internet identity and trust, who was honored in 2006 with the Digital Identity World Award, is suspended by Google for not conforming to its Real Names policy?

This is especially galling because several of the key members of the Google+ design team, including +Chris Messina and +Joseph Smarr, are longtime members of the user-centric digital identity community that has been meeting every six months at the Internet Identity Workshop hosted by Kaliya, Phil Windley, and Doc Searls since 2005.

So far Google has stood unflinchingly behind the policy despite the growing storm of controversy lead by sites such as My.NameIs.Me — leading many observers to wonder whether, despite the wonderful innovations in Google+ (like Circles), Google still “doesn’t get social”.

One of the best critiques of why Google is cutting off its own nose to spite its face with its Real Names Policy is from Mike Elgan, writing for Computerworld:

Why Google’s policy is incompatible with Google+

Google’s policy can’t work. For example, what about any person with a personal brand that happens to be a pseudonym?

Under Google’s policy, Dr. Phil, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg and Ralph Lauren would be forced to use Google+ as Phillip McGraw, Stefani Germanotta, Calvin Broadus and Ralph Lifshitz.

Or is the plan to allow the rich and famous to use pseudonyms but not battered women, persecuted minorities, political dissidents and others using fake names out of self defense?

Google, do you really want to be on the wrong side of that argument?

Like many others of us, Mike is especially puzzled that Google is taking this stance because, as he goes on to say:

The solution is easy and obvious

The solution to the real names problem couldn’t be easier or more obvious. Go ahead and require a real name. But simply make the user name field like other fields in the profile — let users hide it, as long as they’ve put something in the “Nickname” field.

The combination of a hidden real name and an exposed nickname lets Google have it both ways: Users can use pseudonyms, but Google itself can know who the person is (for consistency across Google accounts, and also for commerce).

Google could even add two more controls that would make the change more consistent with Google’s objectives. First, allow people to hide their real name only if their account is associated with a cell phone number. (Google already allows Gmail addresses and Google accounts to be associated with phones for identification.) This would prevent people from signing up for one account after another, then abusing Google+ policies under serial pseudonyms.

Second, come up with some subtle signal — an icon, for example — that tells everyone that a pseudonym is a pseudonym.

While Mike’s analysis is fundamentally correct – the solution lies in a policy that allows pseudonymity with accountability – the devil is in the details, and supporting pseudonymity with accountability in a way that adequately protects the rights of all parties is a much harder problem than it looks. Joseph Smarr admits this in an interview with Alex Howard at O’Reilly quoted by Kaliya in her blog.

In fact the problem is so hard that Connect.Me developed the Respect Trust Framework to provide the foundation for a trust network capable of doing this at Internet scale. And enough people already agree with us that it won the Privacy Award at the European Identity Conference in May even before we launched our first services based on it. (Connect.Me’s Drummond Reed and Connect.Me counsel Scott David, legal architect of the Respect Trust Framework, will be speaking about it September 20 at Sibos, the annual conference of the worldwide banking industry.)

Which is why Connect.Me will not require real names for Connect.Me accounts, starting with the Connect.Me private beta this month. The Respect Trust Framework provides a means for socially verifying the online trustworthiness of an individual without requiring the person’s online identity to a “real name”.

We invite our friends at Google to take a close look at the Respect Trust Framework and talk to us about how we can solve this problem together.

It’s not just that it matters to us, or to Kaliya, or to Google, but that it matters to hundreds of thousands of individuals whose need to use a pseudonym online may actually be a matter of life and death.


2011-08-15: See this scathing analysis of the Identitywoman fiasco from Kim Cameron, former Chief Identity Architect of MIcrosoft.

2011-08-20: Kevin Marks has an excellent post on Google Plus must stop this Identity Theatre.

2011-08-20: See this open letter from +Robert Scoble to +Vik Gundotra about why the Google real names policy must be fixed.