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Google's anonymity ban defied by Thomas Jefferson

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Open...and Shut The technology world loves to navel-gaze and think it's constantly breaking new ground, but as in the case of the recent debate over real names and anonymity on Google+, technology often plods over well-trodden ground.

For example, if you dropped one of the American republic's "founding fathers" into the midst of the Google+ brouhaha, he'd feel right at home. Unfortunately.

Let me explain. In case you missed it, Google has been under fire for its policy requiring that people use their real names on its Google+ social networking service.

There are plenty of good reasons to use pseudonyms, as others have pointed out, but because Google intends Google+ to be an identity service, all of these reasons take a back seat to establishing a credible online identity.

As venture capitalist Fred Wilson points out, this suggests that the identity service is intended to benefit Google, not Google+ users, an observation that is almost certainly correct.

To a point, anyway. After all, there are other good reasons to dump anonymity on the web, as I've argued. Anyone who has ever taken the trouble to blog knows this well. Anonymity encourages cowardice masquerading as bravado. It gets really old, really fast.

It's not, however, anything new.

I've been reading Ron Chernow's exceptional Washington: A Life and have been struck by how venomous the press was in the days of the early republic – and how it was made more so by the common practice of prominent men taking pseudonyms to launch near-sadistic attacks on their opposition.

This wasn't just relegated to the rabble of 18th Century America, either. Washington's own cabinet member, Thomas Jefferson, was one of his harshest anonymous critics, along with James Madison and others among the founding fathers. The attacks were often willfully false, cruel, and only possible because of their anonymous nature. Jefferson, indeed, opted to launch his attacks through intermediaries, rather than sully his own hands.

However, the same anonymity that drove Washington to distraction (and an earnest desire to leave office after just one term, though he was persuaded to remain for two) was also critical in fostering the republic in the first place.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay used pseudonyms to argue the case for a constitution and a harmonizing of interests in a grand republic, rather than a weak federation of sovereign states. They needed anonymity to be able to argue freely, allowing their arguments to be decoupled from the actual people advancing them.

Indeed, this Janus-faced anonymity problem/opportunity is well-expressed by Madison's writings. He did profound good with anonymity in the Federalist Papers, and then put anonymity to destructive use against Washington throughout his presidency.

As much as I hate the bile that web anonymity encourages, it's the price we have always paid to ensure free speech. Sometimes that speech is hateful and wrong. But that isn't sufficient justification to close mouths to establish a marketing bonanza for Google – or anyone else.

All of which, by the way, suggests that Facebook may have already won. There, people voluntarily use their real names because that's the foundation for finding their friends. A more impersonal service like Google+, which tries to blend the more business-y broadcasting of Twitter with the ability to connect with friends tries too hard to be all things to all people, and so straddles the line between speech we might want to keep anonymous and speech that only happens when we're "real".

It may be a bridge too far for Google+, which will suit Facebook just fine. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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