Who Are You, and Who Am I to Ask?

Darrell, Staff Writer

Much has been made of Google’s policy to require the use of one’s real name when signing up for Google+. The most compelling (and lengthy) upbraiding of Google+ I've read can be found here. I won't address Hinckley's every point because I have things to do this century; I will begin, however, by saying that his points are salient and correct, even though I can't personally identify with any of it.

You see, if I looked only within myself, I would have no reason to object to Google's policy. I don't maintain pseudonyms -- my few online personas are all somehow linked to my actual name. I have no problem letting you know that I have written political diatribes and dirty words on Twitter, Facebook, and my personal website, all of which are easily linked to my "true" identity. I'm somewhat proud of most of my writings, so I actually want my name attached to most things I do. I am not afraid of upsetting my family or employers with my words, nor do I fear reprisal from potential enemies. Naturally introverted, I anticipate no need to share deeply personal information with anyone, online or offline (contrast Hinckley's talking pseudonymously about his rocky marriage). I'm just not wired to need a pseudonym.

I realize, however, that this attitude is one of the many things that make me an oddity. I understand all the examples in Hinckley's long list of people who benefit from pseudonymity. But even if I didn't understand -- even if I took the heartless tack of "if you're embarrassed or oppressed, don't go on the internet", I would still object to Google+'s anti-pseudonym mandate because we, quite simply, have the right to misrepresent ourselves however we like.

I'm reminded of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision from about a year ago. In United States v. Alvarez, the federal government charged Xavier Alvarez under the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, as Alvarez publicly (and falsely) introduced himself as a retired Marine and Medal of Honor recipient. The appellate court denied the government's appeal because as abhorrent as Alvarez's lies were, it would be a First-Amendment violation to prosecute someone simply for lying. This wasn't fraud -- had he sought military benefits based on his falsehood, that would be a crime. This wasn't perjury -- he obstructed no judicial investigation with his lies. This was simply a guy trying to make himself look better than he is (and failing spectacularly).

In his brilliant (and funny) concurring opinion (which you should read in its entirety), Chief Judge Alex Kozinski affirmed our right to lie: "An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal and when to deceive." Amen, my jurist. This is more than an issue of constitutionality -- it's an issue of personal autonomy. If the federal government can't get away with violating it, why should we let Google?


P.S.: Because it made me chuckle, I am pasting below my favorite paragraph from Kozinski's opinion (you know, for you folks who can't be bothered to read an entire judicial opinion):

Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”); to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”); to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”); to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”); to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”); to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”); to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”); for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”); to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”); to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”); to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”); to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”); to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”); to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”); to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”); to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”); to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”); to namedrop (“We go way back”); to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”); to buy time (“I’m on my way”); to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”); to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”); to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”); to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”); to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner”); to save face (“I had too much to drink”); to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”); to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”); to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”); to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”); to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”); or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”).

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