Google's almost two-year push to require users of its online services to reveal their real names has an unlikely critic: Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, who is also credited as the "Father of the Internet."
Cerf said that by forcing people to use their real names, it can hurt social media users in nations that are ruled by oppressive regimes where such transparency can be a true danger. Cerf made his comments in an interview with Reuters that probed his feelings about Google's identity policies, which have been reviewed by the company several times since they were implemented in 2011, when it launched its Google+ social network.
Cerf told Reuters that the company's move toward real-name authentication for Google+ and other services "has sparked intense debate" inside the company. At the same time, he said, the latest name policy does allow some users to display pseudonyms and generally gives enough options to users.
"Using real names is useful," Cerf said. "But I don't think it should be forced on people, and I don't think we do."
At the same time, Cerf told Reuters, there are legitimate cases where the use of real names online is a good thing.
"Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations," Cerf said. "But there are cases where in the transactions both parties really need to know who are we talking to. So what I'm looking for is not that we shut down anonymity, but rather that we offer an option when needed that can strongly authenticate who the parties are."
Meanwhile, it is important that options do exist to allow anonymity to protect users in nations where free speech is not welcome, he told Reuters.
The real name policy implemented by Google with the launch of Google+ attracted immediate criticisms by Web activists in the summer of 2011. The criticisms helped inspire Google to make some changes over its real name policies.
At first, Google suspended Google+ accounts of users who opted for pseudonyms or fake names, without giving them any notice. That "no notice" policy was changed to give users four days notice before their accounts were suspended.
By not using their real names, users are making the Internet community a less friendly place, Google has argued.
Critics have countered that Google wants users to use their real names not for altruistic reasons but to be able to use the information to push ads and other revenue-generating content on behalf of the search giant.