“Father of the internet”, Vint Cerf, says that Google services shouldn’t require real names

March 7, 2013
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Vint Cerf

I know that internet privacy is one of those topics which has been argued to the point of exhaustion, but when Vint Cerf speaks up we should probably pay attention. After all he co-invented the protocols that underpin the Internet back in the 70s, and works as Google’s “chief internet evangelist”.

In an interview with Reuters the other day, he acknowledged some of the intense debates which took place within Google’s own headquarters regarding the real name requirements for Google+ and the account mergers with Youtube, Gmail, and other Google services. Cerf argued that the current option, which allows users to display a pseudonym in place of their real name, offers users an adequate “choice”, and should be seen as a reasonable compromise between preserving anonymity and fostering an environment of user accountability.

But he does have his concerns about protecting the privacy of individuals, especially when it comes to dealing with oppressive regimes and government policing of the internet.

“Using real names is useful, … But I don’t think it should be forced on people, and I don’t think we do.”

“Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations,” … “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.”

His statements seem perfectly reasonable to me, after all people writing politically sensitive blogs certainly benefit from expressing their views without persecution, but when it comes to buying something online I’d obviously like to be able to verify who I’m dealing with. But Cerf isn’t very clear on exactly where that line between protecting freedom of expression and holding people accountable for their words and actions should be drawn, but that’s a pretty tricky call to make.

This isn’t the first time that Vint Cerf has stated his concerns about censoring and filtering the web, particularly when it comes to governments aiming to clamp down on free speech and weeding out trouble makers wishing to remain anonymous. Back in December he noted that Google was at the forefront of observing “the dangers of the government-led Net crackdown”. His comments no doubt referred to the increase in state requests for user data -which reached a record 21,389 cases at the end of last year- and government requests to remove content from web results.

At the risk of venturing off into another debate I’ll stop there, but what do you make of Vint Cerf’s comments? Does he make a rational argument, is it hypocritical to make the case that Google is good but governments are bad, or are you just past caring?

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