Facebook’s “Authentic Name” Policy Needs To Change

Facebook’s “authentic name” policy, which forces users to use the name which appears on government-issued forms of ID, has renewed controversy with two recent cases where people have had their accounts deactivated for not using their “authentic name. Laurie Penny, a British journalist who uses a pseudonym due to the rape and death threats she regularly receives, had her account deactivated, and Zip, who has used that name for six years and who used it while they worked at Facebook, had their account deactivated that same day as the Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Facebook is a vital tool for community, especially for those of us who are marginalised. It withholds our access to friends and support in order to enforce their policy, and in so doing we are faced with a stark choice between a name we do not identify with and do not want to use, or being disconnected. If we make the choice to stay we find ourselves increasingly recognised by other people by that forced name.
By forcing us to change our names on the site, Facebook changes the names we are known by in real life — whether we like it or not.
My name is only real enough to work at Facebook, not to use on the site. @Zip.

Facebook’s rationale for “authentic names” stems from their belief that real names push up user engagement on the site. Facebook is inherently less valuable if you can’t easily find your friends or the cute person you just met at a bar.

But that’s only half the story.

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Mark Zuckerberg has said in an interview. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” He’s also said that privacy is no longer a “social norm” people care about.

All this just points to Zuckerberg as he wishes the world was — it’s in Facebook’s interest for privacy not to be something people hold dear. And as we’ve seen with Laurie Penny and Zip, that dissonance is starting to chafe.

There are lots of reasons people might use and be known by a name that isn’t their birth name. They could be transitioning, closeted, or they might be victims of stalking or intimate partner violence who want to take advantage of a social network for support and outreach without leaving them vulnerable to their abusers. They could be Native Americans. Or they could be people with really good nicknames. If everyone at NYU knows me as “Towser” rather than “Tommy,” why is it Facebook’s place to decide whether or not I’m allowed to do that?

The point is that it’s not Facebook’s job to be a gate-keeper — these are not decisions which should be within their jurisdiction.

To my knowledge, Mark Zuckerberg has never been closeted. He has never had a facet of his identity that causes people to be attacked, murdered, fired, or evicted from their homes. As the founder of a social network that benefits so many people with marginalized identities, he has a huge responsibility to make that safe as safe as possible, particularly given that he has little first-hand experience with the issues confronting these marginalized identities.

Mark, you’ve got to do more.

I’ll end with the conclusion of Zip’s post:

Facebook needs to do better than this. Technology is not neutral, and a technology that a billion people use to communicate has the power to warp and change reality around itself. Adding custom gender was a small change, yet it hit the front page of CNN, angered Fox News and got its own segment on The Daily Show. It encouraged other large sites such as Google Plus and OKCupid to handle nonbinary gender too. It exposed the world to the notion that gender might not be a binary. That’s profound. It’s time for Facebook to step up and do the same thing for names.

Tommy Collison is a writer interested in privacy and the future of journalism in a post-Snowden world. He’s the opinion editor of The Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper. His columns focus on technology, privacy and student life. When not writing, he teaches journalists, activists, and others how to use privacy software. At NYU, he studies journalism and Middle East & Islamic studies.

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