When it comes to Facebook’s real names policy, it’s really clear—something needs to change. Over the last few weeks, we’ve joined dozens of advocates in saying so. And in a meeting with LGBTQ and digital rights advocates, Facebook agreed. Of course, admitting there’s a problem is always the first step towards a solution. But what’s not clear is what that solution will be.
EFF continues to believe that the best solution is simply to get rid of the "real names” policy entirely. But barring that, Facebook needs to find a solution that takes into account the myriad groups of people affected by Facebook’s faulty policy, from undocumented immigrants, to activists in oppressive regimes, to survivors of domestic violence.
Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox, posted a statement [if you don’t have a Facebook account, click here to read the text of the statement] on Facebook in which he apologized to “members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we've put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.”
With regards to the policy, and solutions moving forward, he states:
Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life….[W]e're already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors. And we're taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way.
We’re encouraged by Facebook’s commitment to continue to work on this issue. There’s no question that the way Facebook’s system is implemented now is incredibly flawed and ripe for misuse. The enforcement mechanism has allowed abusive users to recreate the very online bullying the policy is supposed to prevent by going on reporting sprees. And when accounts like Sister Roma’s are suspended, users have had no recourse.
While getting rid of the policy altogether would be a better move, and easier to implement, if Facebook is really committed to prohibiting anonymity on the site, there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the way any names policy is enforced. Account suspensions shouldn’t be virtually automatic. There must be mechanisms in place that allow real review of accounts, so that they don’t ever get to the checkpoint that asks for an ID in the first place. Additionally, reporting sprees like the one that targeted the trans community last month should be treated as abusive behavior. But most importantly, Facebook’s standards and enforcement team should be focused on bad behavior, not names.
But Facebook hasn’t addressed the real problem here: the company will not stop requiring verification of names. And that means that, unless Facebook can commit to an extraordinary level of review when accounts are reported, trans people who don’t have an ID with their real name (as opposed to their legal name) will continue to have their accounts suspended. Activists using pseudonyms, even pseudonyms they might use in all of their political activity, will have their accounts suspended. Undocumented immigrants, who may not have any form of identification at all or may feel uncomfortable providing it, will have their accounts suspended.
Facebook’s proposed solutions don’t really get to the heart of the problem: the real names policy itself.
And it’s also problematic that Cox stated both that Facebook’s policy has never been to require legal names and that the real names policy has only now become a problem.
Facebook’s publicly available policies state: “The name you use should be your real name as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID.” While the words “legal name” aren’t here, the forms of ID listed in the policy will, in almost every case, match the ID on a birth certificate. If that’s not what Facebook means, it needs to change the language of its policies right now. Facebook also needs to be clear that it will treat reporting sprees—both the individual accounts that engage in them, as well as groups formed to encourage them—as abusive.
What’s more, this is hardly the first time Facebook has been confronted with its policy's problems. EFF and other digital rights organizations such as ACCESS have been pointing to problems with Facebook’s policy for years. And over four years ago EFF’s Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian York wrote about a spree of account suspensions focused on activists including accounts critical of Islam, “gay rights activists, Jewish activists, activists for a free Palestine, and activists against the Venezuelan regime (among others).” In fact, it turns out “a group was created on Facebook (in Arabic) for the sole purpose of reporting, and thus having removed, Facebook profiles of atheist Arabs.” So it’s disingenuous for Facebook to say that this only now has become a problem.
With all of those caveats, we do believe that Facebook’s decision to apologize and commit to working on solutions is a positive sign. We will continue to work towards solutions that help Facebook users now, while pushing for an end to the real names policy in the long term.