Last week I gave a talk on the right to be forgotten at Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.  After, IU Law Dean Hannah Buxbaum mentioned that changing one’s name in the US is much easier than in other places. Names are an important part of the right to be forgotten – names are what attach us to so much personal information online. You can change your name to just about anything here in the States. Just ask Tyrannosaurus Rex, or T-Rex as the 23 year old previously known as Tyler Gold likes to be called (because it’s “cooler” – obviously). Limitations are pretty slight, but a name change may be denied if it involves:

  • Fraudulent intent, such as avoiding bankruptcy by pretending to be someone else or to get away with a crime
  • Violating a trademark or interfering with the rights of others; so you can’t change your name to Mitt Romney unless there is a convincing reason that isn’t related to the famous person
  • Using numbers or symbols (except Roman numerals) because they are intentionally confusing, which is why no binary Meg Leta Ambrose
  • Using obscene words, fighting words, or racial slurs

You also have to give notice of your name change by publishing it in your local newspaper and take the affidavit of publication back to be filed with the clerk of courts. With most newspapers publishing online, the connection between the past name and new name is easily accessible, but certainly adds some pretty significant friction to gathering information on an individual with a name change through an online search.

In other countries, names are far more regulated. When naming a child in Germany, you must be able to tell the gender of the child by the first name (Matti was rejected for a new born boy). And the name chosen cannot negatively affect the well being of the child (Mayo Head might agree with this type of limitation). You cannot use last names, the names of objects, or the names of products as first names. You pay a fee for the name to be submitted to the office of vital statistics. The office refers to a book of first names when assessing the proposed name and an appeal can be made if rejected, but if the appeal is lost, a new name will be required (and a new fee paid).

Denmark has a specific law that would probably not allow Moxie CrimeFighter. The Law of Personal Names is meant to save children from their silly parents. Names are subject to approval of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Ministry of Family and Consumer Affairs. Parents can either choose from the pre-approved names in a government list of 3,000 boys and 4,000 girls names or they can apply to have a name approved. 15-20% of the 1,1000 reviewed names are rejected. In short, “Danish law stipulates that boys and girls must have different names, first names cannot also be last names, and bizarre names are O.K. as long as they are ‘common.'”

Sweden’s Naming Law, enacted in 1982 to prevent non-nobles from giving their children noble names (regulating noble names in 1982 seems late, no?), “First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.” The law has been updated to allow men to change their last names to their partner’s, but at least two parents were quite unhappy with the registration process, naming their child Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 (pronounced Albin and rejected by the Swedish Tax Agency and the court upon appeal). Also of note, Metallica was determined “inappropriate” but later overturned, Google was accepted as a middle name, and Allah was refused as objectionable.

Today, names serve as an access point to personal information. We find information about people by entering her or his name into a search engine. If the information does not include the individual’s name (or connected in another way, e.g., meta-data), it will not be retrieved. It seems that European law is more inclined to manipulate the content or the route to access the information (see Spain vs Google right to be forgotten dispute), as opposed to the altering the initial access point. The US, on the other hand, is happy to allow the creation of a new identity (as long as it does not fall into one of the above mentioned exceptions) through a name change but less inclined to support efforts to edit content or alter the other access points (like messing with intermediary indexes or anonymization). With over 90% of two year olds already accumulating an online presence and new parents naming their children so they are easily retrievable on Google, the clerk’s office may see a spike in paper work.