// This is a follow up to a previous article on Facebook’s Real Name Policy, “Pseudonyms: Not Who You Share With, But Who You Share As”

Back in early October, I wrote a lengthy piece on pseudonymity online – the way we assume multiple identities based on context. Just like you may act and speak differently with close friends than you would at work, so too (generally) goes conduct online. This is accomplished through usernames, avatars, and other privacy tools.SquarePegRoundHoleToday we’ll look into Facebook’s Real Name Policy – where it came from, what it is trying to accomplish, and what consequences (intended and otherwise) come from trying to wrangle the complicated concept of identity into a neat little marketable box.

2012: Background & Ancient History

Facebook, which serves as many folks’ front and only door to the rest of the internet, adopted a Real Name policy around 2012, forcing users to participate with a legally recognized first and last name. The users who were reported for violating this policy had scan and submit a valid ID in order to gain access to their account again.

Not so terrible right? Almost everyone has a passport, driver’s license or state ID…

Not So Humble Beginnings

A quarterly earnings report in August of 2012 revealed that about 8.7% of its massive 955 million users were ‘fake’ accounts. These ‘fakes’ consisted of accounts used for spam, accounts that pretended to be famous figures or brands, and accounts that served as multiple identities for users (think work email vs. personal email).

When investors found out that almost 1/10th of accounts were unmarketable – that is unable to create reliable data points which could be sold to advertisers – Facebook “refined and improved methodology for recognizing what [they called] duplicate or false accounts… this [will not] change the return on investments delivered to advertisers…”

“Authentic identity is important to the Facebook experience, and our goal is that every account on Facebook should represent a real person,” – Facebook, 2012

Unintended Consequences

While the policy did weed out some of the more than 83 million fake active accounts at the time, it also had major unintended consequences for users with nicknames, pseudonyms, and professional assumed identities. Agitators, trolls and pranksters took advantage of the system in place, reporting anyone they seemed to dislike or disagree with. Bigots and racists started to do the same.

Members of many marginalized groups “such as ethnic minorities, abuse victims, and the LGBTQ community,” rely on Facebook for community and support through the use of fake names to maintain their privacy. Dissident political activists, journalists and public figures used nicknames on Facebook to protect themselves.

October 2015: Nameless Coalition Demands Changes to Real Name Policy

October 15th, 2015 saw the coming together of the Nameless Coalition (a group of affected users and privacy advocates) demanding a change to the Facebook Real Name policy. Specifically, they demanded changes to the way ‘fake’ names were reported and their users penalized:

  • 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.

December 2015: Facebook Responds

A short two months later in December 2015, the Nameless Coalition got a response. While a turnaround time like this is relatively unheard of for policy change on the social network, not all of the demands raised were addressed.

Justin Osofsky, Facebook Vice President of Global Operations, and Todd Gage, Product Manager wrote a joint letter to the community at large, distributed through Facebook’s PR tool Newsroom:

Today, we will begin to test new tools that address two key goals. First, we want to reduce the number of people who are asked to verify their name on Facebook when they are already using the name people know them by. Second, we want to make it easier for people to confirm their name if necessary. These tools have been built based on many conversations with community leaders and safety organizations around the world.

Matt Cagle for the ACLU explains:

Facebook says it is changing two things.

First, Facebook is going to require that people reporting supposedly fake names provide additional context about the people they are reporting. This is designed to address a problem we highlighted in our [Nameless Coalition] letter to Facebook: by allowing users to gang up in their efforts to report others, Facebook incentivizes abuse that silences unpopular [or marginalized] users. By requiring more information from reporters, Facebook may be able to reduce these inaccurate reports and their harmful effects.

The second big change is that users whose accounts are challenged can provide more information about their circumstances. This change is designed to ensure that people can use a name not on an ID when that name reflects their actual identity or helps protect their privacy or personal safety.

Band-Aids on Band-Aids

While these may feel like good first steps on Facebook’s behalf, they only address certain aspects of the Coalition’s concerns, and only so much.

For starters, as explained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Wafa Ben Hassine and Eva Galperin, “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,” though expansion to other countries’ users will happen in time “based on feedback.”

The major prevailing issue with the proposed fixes has everything to do with personal privacy:

Once context has been established and a user account is reported as fake, the onus, then, is on that user to provide “more information about their circumstances…”

In short, those who are being forced to prove their identity will now also be asked to additionally prove and document their ‘special circumstances’ – essentially giving away even more information about their situation to justify the use of pseudonymity (a freedom enjoyed basically everywhere else on the web).

“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.

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.” – EFF

I think Hassine and Galperin say it best:

“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.”

Back to the Drawing Board

At the end of the day we have to remember that Facebook is a business – one that survives on the data it culls from real users making real choices. The Facebook real names standard, fundamentally flawed as it may be, is likely here to stay. There were ways to communicate pseudonymously before Facebook, and there will be ways to communicate pseudonymously after Facebook.

Though it could certainly be argued that alternative venues to Facebook are disappearing, a legal remedy to such issues seems highly unlikely. A more likely outcome is that Facebook will continue to make the rules, and users will continue to protest and—with some luck—help shape those rules. – Jillian York, for OpenNet Initiative, predicting the future in 2010

The best thing we can do is become self reliant – to learn the tools, technologies and best practices which protect our identities and privacy on and off social networks. Understanding privacy settings, knowing the consequences of our actions online – these are the best tools at our disposal.

Media Literacy (aka Digital Darwinism), friends, is what just might keep the internet free.

Or it’s a good place to start. Disagree? Yell at me via @cocus