Facebook Real Names: trying but not quite there yet

About a month ago, the EFF, along with “75 human rights, digital rights, LGBTQ, and women’s rights advocates” sent Facebook a letter with requested changes in its Real Names policy. Last Friday, Alex Schultz, VP of Growth at Facebook responded to almost every item in the letter. Responses were mostly positive but those who dug a bit deeper into the response were unimpressed, noting that the policy really wasn’t changed but a few small concessions were made.

The naysayers are right: the policy is, in fact, unchanged. Not only is it unchanged, but Facebook still firmly believes that real, “authentic” names help make Facebook safer. When real names are associated with user identification, those users are less inclined to engage in harmful behavior, says Facebook. “Bullying, harassment or other abuse on Facebook is eight times more likely to be committed by people using names other than their own than by the rest of the Facebook community.” I’m willing to buy that claim but that doesn’t justify Facebook’s current method of enforcement.

Two points that were mentioned as changes by Engadget could be helpful, if implemented correctly and sensitively. The first is that Facebook “will now allow users to provide additional context and explanation for using the name they do when confirming their accounts.” This is a good start to understanding why a user isn’t using their legal name. But the problem is that most such content will need to be read by highly trained people (people, not algorithms, as smart as they may be) and those people will need to really understand the struggles of these users. Is such care feasible and scalable? So while context can help, it needs sensitive professionals to understand it and make the decision. This seems a bit like Google needing to decide who has the right to be forgotten – it’s not to their interest to put significant effort into understanding each case.

Facebook also wants to ease the requirement to prove a name and says it will allow non-governmental forms of ID to be served as “evidence.” I don’t hold much hope in the alternatives that Facebook wants as it gave the following examples: “utility bills, a bank statement, a piece of mail, a library card, a school ID card or a magazine subscription label.” Aside from a magazine label, these are all institutions that require a government ID to establish an account. Can I go into a bank and open an account without a government-issued ID? No. So what additional flexibility do these “alternate” forms of ID provide? Were Facebook to accept journalist bylines, pen names, stage names, or other social media handles as proof, that might provide the flexibility users need to show that these are the names they are known by.

Second, Engadget mentioned that Facebook will make the reporting process harder those reporting the “fake” names. This might make it harder to report a user. It will remain to be seen if this will decrease the number of “fake name” reports.

As Facebook is sticking firmly to its belief that real names reduce harassment, I’m curious why they are not looking at something I think should be the very first step. Why are they not looking at what the reported users are actually doing online? Are they abusing others? Are they bullying or harassing other users? Why put users through the exhausting and unpleasant experience of being locked out of their account plus the onerous process of verifying their name along with the fear that Facebook may decide to expose their real identity? Why not, before even asking a user to verify their identity, take a look at how that user is engaging on Facebook. If they’re not doing anything that is harmful to the “community guidelines,” even if they might not be using their real name, why not just let them be?

Finally, I’d like to go back to my post from a month ago: the display name doesn’t have to be the real name. Even after going through verification and supposedly understanding context, don’t make users switch names to whatever Facebook believes those names should be. Leave users this protection if they believe they need it.

Again, to be continued.

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