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Identity & Technology

Facebook's Real Name Policy

Facebook has struggled with their so-called "Real Name" policy for years, as has Google with Google+. The real-name policies highlight a main issue with online identity authentication. Facebook and Google started out just wanting everyone to use their real names online, and that is kind of understandable. We know anonymity online leads to bad behavior (see 4chan) and conversely when people use their real identities online they tend to behave properly. It is all about accountability.

  I went to college with a guy named Weldon Berger.  Seriously.

I went to college with a guy named Weldon Berger.  Seriously.

But Facebook quickly found out that there are really good reasons for people not to use their real names online - transgender people subject to harassment and political dissidents just to name a few. And there are some less serious reasons as well. Some people just have really well-established personas and they want to keep them. A recent Wired article details the problems the author had with using her nickname 'Nads'  (egads) on Facebook. She was doing this to help prevent a stalker from finding her, since names and profile photos are always public. Her friends knew her as 'Nads' so this was not a problem. However, an anonymous (!!!) person reported her and Facebook told her she needed to identify herself with real-world identity documents. She refused to do this for privacy reasons and was unable to resolve the situation.

Facebook's official policy on this doesn't really help the situation:

"Having people use their authentic names helps protect our community from dangerous interactions, like when an abusive ex-boyfriend impersonates a friend to harass his ex-girlfriend, or a high school bully uses a fake name to post hateful comments about a gay classmate."

The interesting thing is that this works both ways - it helps prevent abusive impersonators, but it also help abusive stalkers find someone.

"People can now verify their name without having to show a legal document in that name. They can confirm their name with things like a piece of mail, a magazine subscription, or a library card that include their authentic name."

Seriously?  A magazine subscription is now a source of identity?  Do they really think Cat Fancy is going to refuse a subscription order from Seymour Butts?

  It's not like people could lie on an actual form.

It's not like people could lie on an actual form.

Facebook muddied the waters even more by trying to make a distinction between a legal name and an "authentic" name.  In their parlance, an authentic name is the name that most people know you by. So for a drag queen it could be a stage name; for people with nicknames it could be that nickname; for people named Holden M'Groin, it would be their actual name. That seems way too ambiguous to me. I don't see how you can measure something like "authenticity" when it comes to a name. There is just no reasonable standard for that.

In our view of the world, Facebook is trying to solve the wrong problem. Like everyone else, they are using real-world identity as a proxy for accountability. Facebook doesn't really care about someone's real-world identity/name and a person's friends don't care either, because they actually know the person. Facebook just needs to be able to take meaningful action on an account (banning, suspension, etc) when the account violates Facebook's standards (e.g. harassment). Since anyone can create many Facebook accounts, this is a problem. If Facebook could ensure each account was backed by a real person (not caring about the actual name/identity), then they could take meaningful action - real accountability.