No nyms equals evil

Two weeks ago I contended that "Freedom and privacy, in any meaningful sense, are dead" and discussed the two types of privacy, "factual" privacy, which concerns "static" data such as your age and cholesterol level, and "lifestream" privacy which is the realtime data about things such as where you go and who you talk to.

We all know that our factual privacy is in tatters with every business and government agency that has any interest being capable of finding out whatever it needs to know about us, the law not withstanding. As for the erosion of our lifestream privacy, well, that's somewhat new but even more insidious with most online businesses collecting, analyzing, and retaining insane amounts of data about where we virtually go and what we do.

Now, just consider the consequences of relating our factual data with our lifestream data. Not only could we be easily tracked but our online experience could be tailored, in real time, to have an effect someone else wants whether it's for us to be more receptive to a political or commercial message or primed to purchase.

In last week's column I segued into a discussion about online anonymity, which can protect your lifestream privacy and observed that you can achieve this if you're technical enough to use an anonymizing service such as the Tor Network (unless "they" are really out to get you in which case all bets are off).

I ended by pointing out that there is another side of anonymity to consider: Pseudonyms, also called "handles", aliases, nicknames, or my favorite, "nyms". Some people argue nyms are a bad thing because they enable dissembling and inauthenticity while others argue that they are essential in preserving the freedoms of people who would otherwise be oppressed.

If you've been following the rollout of Google's Google+ social networking service you may have seen Google's policy regarding the names which demands that your account uses your "real" name.

Google's argument for this policy is about as disingenuous as it gets, contending "this makes connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world ... so that the people you want to connect with can find you." Surrrre.

Of course, what counts as a "real" name in the real world is more than a little tricky when you consider unconventional spellings and foreign names. Not unexpectedly, Google blew off its own foot a few weeks ago when it canned several thousand accounts for what Google saw as violations of their policy. Many of these were names that Google simply didn't understand.

The truth, I suspect, is that Google is more interested in doing what any right-thinking user would abhor: Trying to link factual and lifestream data for commercial purposes and the company sees its social networking platform as a powerful intelligence gathering mechanism that real names makes even more powerful.

Google has been, in many ways, an admirable organization that has done a lot of good but to call its real names policy shortsighted would be kind. By demanding "real" names they can't reliably determine what are real, they've inconvenienced a lot of people and excluded all of those who, for example, live under politically repressive regimes or who might for social reasons wish to stay anonymous.

Nyms matter enormously and an online world without nyms, where everyone can be easily tracked, completely measured, tidily pigeonholed, and endlessly manipulated, will become much less free and much less valuable. "Do no evil." Right.

Gibbs (his real name?) might live in Ventura, Calif. Your comments via nym or otherwise to

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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