Facebook claims its practice of forcing users to go by their “real names” (or “authentic identities” as Facebook spins it) makes the social network a safer place. In fact, the company has often claimed that the policy protects women who use the social media platform, even when faced with community advocates pointing out that the policy facilitates harassment, silencing, and even physical violence towards its most vulnerable users. EFF has been among the voices telling Facebook that its real name policy is in serious need of revisiting, and we’ve heard from users across the world that they’ve been kicked off the site unfairly.
> It’s time for Facebook to provide equal treatment and protection for all who use and depend on Facebook as a central platform for online expression and communication.
That’s the message 75 human rights, digital rights, LGBTQ, and women’s rights advocates have for Facebook. We’ve joined a broad global coalition to send a letter to Facebook explaining exactly why the policy is broken, and how Facebook can mitigate the damage it causes. We’re looking forward to seeing Facebook’s response.
The Nameless Coalition1, which drafted the letter, “believe[s] Facebook should get rid of its real names policy altogether,” especially considering that it clearly violates European data protection laws. In the meantime, we wanted to create demands that would “support the dignity, safety, and expressive rights of all users,” including those outside of the US and Western Europe, where users are less likely to get native language proficiency and cultural competency from Facebook, and may not have regular internet access. Our demands, which we ask Facebook to respond to by October 31, are:
> Commit to allowing pseudonyms and non-legal names on its site in appropriate circumstances, including but not limited to situations where using an every day name would put a user in danger, or situations where local law requires the ability to use pseudonyms.
> Require users filing real name policy abuse reports to support their claims with evidence. This could come in written form, multiple-choice questions, or some alternative documentation.
> Create a compliance process through which users can confirm their identities without submitting government ID. This could include allowing users to submit written evidence, answer multiple-choice questions, or provide alternative documentation such as links to blog posts or other online platforms where they use the same identity.
> Give users technical details and documentation on the process of submitting identity information such as where and how it is stored, for how long, and who can access it. Provide users with the ability to submit this information using PGP or another common form of encrypted communication, so they may protect their identity information during the submission process.
> Provide a robust appeals process for users locked out of their accounts. This could include the ability to request a second review, to submit different types of evidence, and to speak to a real Facebook employee, especially in cases involving safety.
The policy now
> Under Facebook’s current policies, users create profiles using the names they use “in real life. When a user first creates a profile, Facebook does not require proof of identity.
> Any user can easily file reports with Facebook claiming that a fellow user is violating this policy, and has no obligation to submit evidence supporting their claim. Any user can file as many reports as they wish, as quickly as they wish, allowing targeted reporting sprees. This has led to unfair application of the policy, and provides people who wish harm upon communities like ours with a dangerous and effective tool. One abuse report can silence a user indefinitely — and has.
Once a user has been placed in “enforcement” due to a report, they are forced to submit ID or lose access to their account. While some users are given time to comply, we’re still receiving reports that some are kicked off the site immediately. While Facebook’s much-lauded announcement that it was modifying its policy did expand the way users can comply, as we point out in the letter:
> [T]he types of ID that Facebook asks for in the “report abuse” process, whether issued by a government or private entity, do not necessarily feature a person’s nickname or “real life” name — especially for transgender people and others who modify their names to protect themselves from harm. ID from a private institution is also often linked to a person’s legal identity and government-issued identification number.
> This process can put users who use a name other than their legal name for safety or privacy purposes in real danger. In some cases 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.
In an appendix to the letter, we provide a disturbing sample of personal stories (including some from signatories to the letter) that demonstrate exactly how these harms happen.
How Facebook’s policy fails users
There’s no doubt that reporting can — and has been — used to silence users. Facebook groups have been created specifically for the purpose of reporting accounts, and in Vietnam government supporters have organized reporting sprees against political activists. Feminist activists from India recently faced a focused reporting attack specifically aimed at silencing their voices on the social media giant — a problem compounded by Facebook’s continued failure to provide culturally competent support staff.
The policy has also been used to push out Native Americans, people using traditional Irish and Scottish names, Catholic clergy, transgender people, drag queens, and sexworkers. LGBTQ users outside the US have been kicked off due to the policy. Even Facebook employees have been kicked off the platform, and the policy has placed domestic violence survivors and targets of harassment in danger by restoring suspended accounts with legal names, allowing their attackers to find them. For even more detailed stories, check out the appendix to our letter to Facebook.
In addition to our coalition letter to Facebook, we’ve created an open petition to Facebook in support of our demands. Sign on, and we’ll deliver the signatures on October 30th, in advance of the deadline for a response from Facebook. With your help, we can make sure Facebook is truly a safe and accessible place for those who truly make it a rich community: women and girls, human rights activists, LGBTQ people, domestic violence survivors, targets of harassment, and more.
The bottom line: we won’t stop advocating
> We look forward to working with Facebook to develop concrete and meaningful changes to its name policy and would welcome the opportunity to participate in strengthening these policies to ensure the rights and free speech of all Facebook users. But we are also dealing with communities that have had their ability to communicate with each other decimated by this policy…Our communities recognize the common injury this policy currently inflicts and we will not stop advocating until fundamental changes are made.
The Nameless Coalition includes Access, ACLU of California, EFF, Center for Democracy and Technology, Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan, ForABetterFB, Global Voices, Human Rights Watch, the Internet Democracy Project, One World Platform, Point of View India, and Take Back the Tech. Please note that this was updated 10⁄7 to reflect that DRF is part of the Coalition. ↩︎
Originally published in EFF.