23 November 2015

On 5th October, a coalition of organizations and individuals, including the Internet Democracy Project, petitioned Facebook to bring attention to the harm that is being caused by its Authentic Identity policy. Along with pointing out a non-exhaustive list of groups affected by the policy, the petition made some concrete recommendations for changes. The petition also demanded that Facebook’s justification for the policy (that it discourages bad behavior) be backed by real data. In this post, we examine what the promised changes are, and whether they satisfactorily address the problems with the ‘real name’ policy.

Briefly, the 5 demands were:

a) allow pseudonyms, and take into account users for whom it is dangerous to use ‘real’ identity

b) make reporting harder by requiring reporters to submit evidence of bad behaviour from the ‘fake’ accounts

c) allow for an alternative to submitting government-authenticated IDs

d) more transparency about what happens to the data once submitted to Facebook, with technical details, and ability to submit this information through commonly used encrypted methods

e) have in place an appeals process wherein users can speak to a Facebook employee

What Facebook has done and what Facebook has not addressed:

On 30th October, Alex Schultz, who works with ‘teams that help protect people on Facebook’ responded to the petition in a letter, stating an intention to address the issues, with an assurance that the new processes would be tested in December this year. Here’s how they claim to address each of the demands we noted above, and also our thoughts on each of them:

a) allow pseudonyms, and take into account users for whom it is dangerous to use ‘real’ identity

In its response, Facebook at the outset states that it does not require government-authenticated ID and that users can submit other available options like utility bills, school ID cards.

All of the IDs mentioned are government-authenticated in an indirect way and link to the users’ legal identities anyway.

Facebook would be testing new processes where people can ‘provide more information about their circumstances’. The feedback from this process would be used to inform potential changes Facebook might make.

Beyond the statement that they would be testing new processes that would in turn help them make potential changes to the reporting, there is no explicit commitment.

Schultz further points out that ‘pages’ have the same functionality as profiles and can be useful where users don’t want their identity linked to their activity.

This is a wholly inappropriate remedy to the problem at hand. Pages do not engender the same kind of community building or networking as having user profiles with their own identities.

b) make reporting harder by requiring reporters to submit evidence of bad behaviour from the ‘fake’ accounts

Facebook has agreed to make reporting harder by building a new version of the profile-reporting process.

Beyond a vague nod in the direction of specific demands, Facebook remains non-committal.

c) allow for an alternative to submitting government-authenticated IDs

After restating that Facebook accept IDs other than those issued by the government, Schultz points to Facebook’s Help Center page.

In its current version, if the user does not want to provide a government ID, the user has two other options. The first is that a user submit two of the following IDs- mail, check, permit, transit card, utility bill, credit card, school ID, library card, paycheck, medical record, bank statement, social security card, employment verification, yearbook photo or membership ID. The requirement that a user have two IDs with the name they use, along with a photo or date of birth, defeats the reason people choose to use identities different from those authenticated by formal institutions. The other option available is that the user submit a third ID, with a photo or date of birth that matches their Facebook profile, even if the name doesn’t match the one in the two other IDs. While the complicated ID submission procedure has now been explained on Facebook’s Help Center page, it does not simplify the arduous process itself.

d) more transparency about what happens to the data once submitted to Facebook, with technical details, and ability to submit this information through commonly used encrypted methods

The letter assures that Facebook would only keep the data temporarily and delete it after 30 days. Facebook further states that they would store the IDs encrypted until they are destroyed. Further, Facebook has stated that it would outline these protections in their Help Center page.

While Facebook claims the data given to it in the form of IDs is not retained by it, other than Facebook’s word for it in the letter, there is no other assurance. Given Facebook’s questionable practices of retaining even user-deleted data on their servers, this statement does not inspire much confidence.

e) have in place an appeals process wherein users can speak to a Facebook employee

Facebook has stated there would be personalised help in their confirmation process, and that they would be testing it soon. In its current form, Facebook claims that members of the Facebook team are advising users on the types of documents they can submit, as well as providing support in different languages.

The appeals process and support in different languages are not currently functional, as claimed by Facebook.

The petition forwarded by the Nameless Coalition demanded that Facebook respond to the demands by 31st October 2015. Facebook’s timely response is therefore deeply appreciated. The response letter states that the changes will take time to test and implement and December has been pegged as the month when they start rolling out these changes to assess if they are helpful. However, in Facebook’s responses, there is a deficit of any accountability to the commitments made, as it is couched in vague assurances like ‘making further improvements’ and ‘continuing to engage’ without specifications. On demands (a),(b) and (e), Facebook has agreed to design better processes keeping in mind its users who do not wish to use their legal names. As it is premature to comment on these points just yet, we will keep our eyes peeled for changes. However, on (c) and (d), Facebook has not made any appreciable changes and remains woefully incapable of recognising the problems with its policy.

Alex Schultz in his letter states that his personal experiences involving his engagement with LGBT communities helped him understand that the policy disproportionately targeted certain groups. However, it would be great if Facebook could take into account concerns that they might not have had a chance to be personally moved by, given that the platform is used in numerous languages in different cultural and political settings.


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