Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What's in a name?

People invest an enormous amount of identity and personal energy into their own names.

Names are our unique identifiers, defining us as separate to others - even for people with common names.

So when organisations make rules about the names people can use online it can create signficant distress and dislocation for people.

It also raises questions over who can decide your identity. Can corporations deny people the use of their legal names online simply because they don't fit a narrow model of what the corporation regards as 'appropriate naming'?

A recent example I've been following is Stilgherrian's battle with Google over the use of his legal name for Google Plus. You can follow it at his blog (strong language) or read about it at The Register.

Stilgherrian changed his name over thirty years ago to a mononym - a single name. His passport and official records all reflect this and those of us who know Stilgherrian personally have never experienced any dislocation or issue with engaging with him as an individual with one name.

However Google's Plus service has defined rules for allowable names. Firstly it requires that you use your legal name (although Google is apparently not requiring evidence or checking with authorities in most cases to verify). Secondly, it requires that you have a first name and a last name and that there's no spaces or characters like an apostrophe in your name.

Now while this might fit a certain segment of the population, there's a number of people who have either only one name (as is common in a number of countries), have spaces in their names such as "Dick Van Dyke", or use apostrophes and other non-standard characters.

The net result is that Google is blocking people with names that don't match its view of what is a legal name - and requiring that people provide documented proof of their 'anomalous' legal names.

I have another friend who changed her legal name to a mononym (which includes an apostrophe) over ten years ago. About two weeks ago she announced that she was changing her name to add a 'first' name, so that she could use Facebook and other social media channels to communicate with people.

She had finally reached the point where her single name was excluding her from legitimate social interactions due to the naming policies of (mainly) US companies.

I have a real problem with this situation, for Stilgherrian, for my friend and for the millions of other people around the world who have names that don't fit Google or Facebook's views of a legal name.

Firstly, 'legal' names should be defined by governments, not corporations. Australia's governments, and many governments around the world, support a much wider variety of legal naming conventions than social networks appear to allow.

Secondly, isn't it discrimination when corporations deny you access to their service due to the format of your legal name? Denying a service to an individual just because their name is structured differently to their business rules might be legally actionable.

Finally, what right do corporations have to your legal name anyway - particularly if they make it public. Many people have good reasons for not revealing their legal name publicly. Those in witness protection programs, minors, people with embarrassing 'real' names and those who are widely publicly known by a name other than their legal name, are all candidates for using a different name to their legal name online for legitimate reasons.

It is fair to deny people access to online services, particularly when these services are in such widespread use, just because they can't publicly disclose their legal name?

All of the examples above relate to corporations. However there are examples which may also refer to government as well.

There have been calls from a number of quarters in various Australian government to restrict people to the use of their legal name when commenting online. The purported reason is that people are less likely to behave inappropriately if they can be held accountable for what they say. The subtext is that people become easier to monitor and track.

I am not a fan of this approach for governments either. Like above, there are legitimate reasons why people might choose to not use their legal name in online discussions.

It can also be very hard to identify many people from their legal name alone, given the number of duplicates that may exist. Any step taken to require legal name use would have to attach address and proof of identity in order to identify specific individuals. Even then, identity theft would lead to many misrepresented identities.

Also there are other ways authorities can identify individuals if there are legitimate reasons to do so (such as discussion of committing a crime) - using IP addresses and various analysis techniques.

What is useful for government, is being able to identify consistent identities online - whether individuals choose to use their legal names or not.

Consistent identities allow organisations to build user cases based on profiling views across different topics, supporting policy development and decision-making without compromising personal privacy or security and while allowing people to define themselves online as they choose.

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