More than 70 global human rights organizations are currently calling on Facebook to conclusively remedy its “real name” policy, which, despite several changes over the years, still requires users to provide “their authentic identities.” Although Facebook contends that the purpose of this policy is to make Facebook a safe community, the “real name” requirement actually puts many of its users in harms way. The Nameless Coalition — consisting of dozens of human rights groups representing “women, human rights activists, indigenous, religious, and ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ people, and Internet users” — recently signed and published an open letter to Facebook, calling its “real name” requirement “culturally biased and technically flawed,” and urging the social network to “provide equal treatment and protection for all” by definitively doing away with the policy.
The controversial policy has long faced the ire of users for the very real harm it inflicts on those who use a name other than their legal name for security, privacy and identity purposes. Yet despite that, Facebook responded to the Nameless Coalition’s open letter by defending the policy as a necessary measure in curtailing the creation of fake accounts for nefarious and malicious purposes and ensuring that users know who they’re communicating with. Facebook maintains that its current name policy and authentication process are absolutely critical to protect its community from terrorists, cyberbullies and other criminals who might hide behind fake profiles. While there are certainly arguments to be made on both sides, it seems clear that the “real name” policy ultimately creates a far graver threat than the one it aims to combat.
While the policy was likely created with benevolent intentions, in total its effect is anything but. The very rule that aims to fight trolls and online-abuse opens many users to a more invasive form of bullying, harassment and silencing. Groups of trolls have deliberately organized in large numbers, or “brigades,” to conduct Facebook raids, a tactic in which the group uses the “report” button to silence political dissent and shutdown the accounts of journalists, activists, LGBTQ+ users and anyone else they disagree with. While Facebook claims that these attacks will not result in a user’s profile being disabled unless something about it actually violates their policies, thus far the raids have wrongfully brought down countless accounts and have even silenced users indefinitely.
Beyond the obvious free speech concerns, the policy is at the very least incredibly over-inclusive, proscribing accounts that use aliases and other names for entirely legitimate, non-malevolent purposes. Indeed, even individuals using their real and legal names have found their accounts inexplicably locked and disabled simply because their names didn’t meet Facebook’s arbitrary “real name” standards. Moreover, while the policy itself states that it merely requires users to use “the name they use in real life” (a claim reiterated by Mark Zuckerberg), their authentication process limits permitted names to a far more stringent set of requirements (i.e., the name on your birth certificate or an approved form of ID). The contradiction is evident, for instance, when one considers trans users who may go by and be known by a name that is not the name they were assigned at birth (and/or is not their legal name). In fact, this very issue resurfaced last year, after Facebook unfairly shut down the accounts of drag queens and drag kings who identify with their stage names or chosen names, rather than their legal names.
In fact, the threat extends even further than the significant curtailing of free speech and the complete lack of regard for the identities of its diverse community of users, and has quite literally put individuals in very real danger. As pointed out in the Nameless Coalition’s open letter, following shutdowns, “Facebook has reinstated accounts with the legal name of users who have submitted government-issued ID in accordance with Facebook’s policies, exposing them to abusive former partners, politically-motivated attacks, and threats of real-life violence.”
It is contradictory and counterproductive for a global social network that claims to foster free speech and cultivate an open, accepting, and diverse community to continue defending this broken policy. If Facebook truly cares about keeping its community safe, equal and open for its members, the company should address the Nameless Coalition’s letter and institute a thoughtful, fair and equitable name policy for all.
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