In response to feedback from activist groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook announced Tuesday that it would change some aspects of its real names policy. As it currently stands, the policy requires users to register what Facebook calls their “authentic identity,”—or how friends and family know them—in order to use the social network. The policy also allows users to report other users registered under alias names and gives Facebook the ability to suspend any accounts where the identity of a user is found to be “fraudulent.” This abuse system has been used to silence a broad range of users, from drag queens to Vietnamese pro-democracy activists.
The policy has long been opposed by marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities, abuse victims, and the LGBTQ community. In October, the Nameless Coalition, a collection of civil society organizations—including EFF—and individuals that oppose the real names policy wrote an open letter to Facebook asking the company to:
- Commit to allowing pseudonyms and non-legal names on the site in appropriate circumstances;
- Require users filing real name policy abuse reports to support their claims with evidence of abusive behavior;
- Allow users to confirm their identities without submitting government ID;
- Give users technical details and documentation on the process of submitting identity information; and
- Provide an appeals process for those locked out of their account.
The first of Facebook’s announced changes is a direct response to the Nameless Coalition’s second demand: any user reporting an alias must provide additional information and context about why they are doing so. Facebook will require the user to “go through several new steps that provide more specifics about the report.”
The second change raises more questions. Facebook says it will test a new tool to let people provide more information about their circumstances if they are asked to verify their account name. In other words, people who are forced to verify their identity will be asked to let the social network know that they have a “special circumstance,” and give more information about their unique situation in order to justify using a pseudonym. Facebook says that this additional information will help their review teams better understand the situation.
This mechanism, ostensibly provided to allow people to use aliases in what Facebook judges to be an exceptional circumstance, forces those who are most vulnerable to reveal even more information about their intimate, personal lives. The only way they can use a pseudonym is to share more information, resulting in a remedy that is useless and risks putting them in a more dangerous situation should Facebook share those personal details. Consider political dissidents who use a pseudonym to protect their families and livelihoods on the ground. Providing Facebook with additional personal information and context to explain the use of a pseudonym is potentially risky, especially if Facebook collaborates with the government in question.
The changes and reporting tools are currently only being rolled out in the U.S. where they will not reach many of the users who need them most, but Facebook promises to expand the changes globally “based on feedback.” Facebook also mentions wanting to “reduce the number of people who have to go through an ID verification experience” and make it more “compassionate.”
But ultimately, the problem with Facebook's policy is a more fundamental one. The “real names” standard that Facebook uses—“a name known by friends and family”—is fundamentally misguided. No amount of tweaking will address the fact that it leaves the most vulnerable—those who cannot be open with friends and family due to real-life threats—out to dry. A victim of domestic abuse will want to use anything but a “real name.” An activist working to expose corporate or government wrongdoing depends on a pseudonym to raise awareness online, not the name their friends and family know them by.
These adjustments may make Facebook a friendlier platform for some users, and responding productively to user complaints is a laudable and important move. But in the end, it’s rearranging chairs on the Titanic. If Facebook really wanted to protect its users and respect their voices, they would get out of the business of gatekeeping their users’ “authentic identities” entirely. Facebook users should be free to choose whatever name they want, so long as it is not in violation of Facebook’s other policies, without having to justify it to the platform. Any policy short of this is simply misguided.