Facebook tweaks its ‘Real names’ policy and reminds us how scary it actually is
Wed 16 Dec 2015
Facebook has made some minor amendments to its policy on demanding ‘real names’ from users in order to quell recent controversies about transgender and other non-standard use-cases where individuals have a genuine need to re-invent their identities.
In a post at the FB newsroom, Vice President of Global Operations Justin Osofsky and Product Manager Todd Gage outline the revisions to the often contentious policy the social media site enforces of insisting that users profile names reflect their ‘actual’ names. The only essential changes being made are that a ‘further details’ text-field or two is being added to the reporting process for people who want to complain that a user is not using their real name, indicating that Facebook arbitrators will take into account extenuating circumstances as to why a person might want to be known by a name that is not on the official documents that identify them; and the addition of further text fields for users who are explaining ‘special circumstances’ when asked by Facebook to verify their name.
These amendments seem to be a delayed response to controversies in September 2014 where several transgender entertainers had their Facebook accounts suspended because their usernames did not tally with their document names, and raised issues of threats to personal safety in the case of unexpected disclosure. The policy change is currently being trialled in the U.S. only.
Comment The net effect of reading about this amendment of the ‘Real names’ policy is to remind the user that behind the ‘fun’ of Facebook is a disposition towards citizen identity that is usually only allowed to governments. The policy originates in Facebook’s roots as a university-based social network which needed to protect its user-base from the fractious pranks and often genuine abuse that can take place during the process of transition from the natural selfishness of teenage years into acceptance of some measure of social responsibility as a young adult. Schools need rules.
However the outcome of telescoping this policy into the world at large means that Facebook has been allowed to co-opt determination of identity, something fairly fundamental to a person’s rights, and to hide behind claims that this policy ‘keeps the community safe’. Details of the verification process that Facebook runs reminds us why governments have been interested in using the ID system of this apparently frivolous social arena as a means of verifying citizen identity for real world purposes which actually matter. The statement made yesterday reminds us of the extent to which we are, or may be required to upload our passports or birth certificates, not to an authority that will grant us permission to marry, leave the country or open a bank account, but to post cat videos to our friends:
‘People can let us know they have a special circumstance, and then give us more information about their unique situation. This additional information will help our review teams better understand the situation so they can provide more personalized support…’
‘…We expanded the options and documents that everyone on Facebook can use to verify their name…’
This might be the right week to agree with Han Solo, and declare that ‘No reward is worth this’.