On Pseudonyms: Transparency And Free Expression Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Editor’s note:  Guest contributor David Cowan is a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, the co-Founder of Verisign, a lead venture investor of LinkedIn, Reputation.com and Lifelock, and a blogger at Who Has Time For This?

The debate on pseudonyms persists in the NY Times, as Google continues to eject pseudonymous accounts from Google Plus. Google crafted its Common Names Policy in order to promote trust and transparency, hoping to mitigate spam and flame wars. But the backlash has been strong from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (in this eloquent statement) and others as they advocate for those who need pseudonyms to express themselves without fear of being ostracized, fired, arrested or physically targeted.

Google has promised to review its policy and develop new ways of addressing these concerns. Until then, Google Plus remains irrelevant not only to Arab Spring revolutionaries but to anyone whose life is not completely an open book. Google’s policy stifles gay teens, victims of workplace harassment, medical patients seeking information and compassion, and anyone who challenges the politics or religion around them.

However, the debate need not dwell on the relative importances of transparency and free expression. We must have both, and I believe we can. If Google seizes the opportunity to get this right, it will further distinguish Google Plus from Facebook as the safe, intelligent platform for sharing.

So Brad and Vic, if you’re listening, here’s how you can enable free, transparent expression on the Internet: establish Google as the source of authenticity with an ID Rank for every profile. Pseudonyms get a zero and your verified celebrities get a 10. Every other Google Plus profile falls in between, based on that profile’s usage and reputation, and Google’s other algorithms for sniffing out pseudonyms.

Once Google does that, I can decide how to interact with profiles of varying ID Rank. Any community that reaches out to the disenfranchised can be liberal in their policy of expression, while others can exclude, or at least moderate, content from pseudonymous users. Any statement or request from a pseudonymous profile can be considered in light of the person’s anonymity.

I expect that Google’s “ID Plus” would quickly leapfrog Facebook Connect and Twitter 0Auth as the preferred Login replacement if you allowed web sites to discriminate based on ID Rank. Commercial standards would develop around escalated levels of authentication, such as whether a profile is linked to an active credit card account. Commerce sites can demand an ID Rank of 7+, and even Bank of America should defer to Google Plus for ID Ranks of 9+.

Having cracked the code on how to share intelligently among my different Circles, Google Plus is the perfect platform for bridging transparency and free expression. Let me craft a different profile for each Circle, so I can use my ID7 profile at work, and my ID0 profile as I publicly criticize scary fundamentalists.

There is nothing dishonest about a pseudonym, so long as it’s presented as one. Rather than fight anonymity, Google should simply help us recognize it—not only on Google Plus, but across the web.