For years, people have been harassed on Facebook by adversaries who flag them as having “fake” identities, even when they’re using their real names. Others using pseudonyms have had their accounts suspended, and have been required to submit documentation to prove that their username matches a legal ID document — even though there is currently no secure way to encrypt the documents submitted, and we don’t know exactly what Facebook does with the data collected. Perhaps most disturbing, some people have had the name on their public Facebook profile changed to match the name in their identity documents — without prior notice or consent.
These are the results of Facebook’s so-called real name policy, which negatively affects some of the most vulnerable people and communities online. That is why today we’re joining the Nameless Coalition to demand a fix to the policy.
Much of what Access does is public: our campaigns, our policy statements, our RightsCon event series. But for years, we’ve heard confidentially from human rights defenders, journalists, members of marginalized communities, activists, organizations, and others who have had problems with the real name policy, which requires that you use your real name when you set up an account on Facebook.
Consider the scenarios we describe below. These are stories from people who have contacted us through the Digital Security Helpline and in our work fighting for digital rights across the globe. While we cannot name these individuals, we feel that it is important to share their experiences:
- Several Vietnamese writers and activists were flagged en masse and disallowed from using pen names on Facebook. One activist, a mother with two sons in prison, had been using her Facebook account primarily to campaign for their release. Every one of these activists and writers were asked to verify their identities, and in several cases, when they provided documents to verify their identities, Facebook unilaterally altered their accounts to list their legal names — without notifying them first. Years of important and anonymous activism became instantly linked with people’s identity.
- Activists and bloggers in Tunisia engaging online in a pre-election period had their accounts reported. To help them out, we advised some of these people to convert their profiles into Facebook “pages,” but they said they had less flexibility, and reported that they lost legitimacy among their followers who had identified with a trusted account.
- A Ukrainian activist was shut out of a Facebook account, and was asked to provide an ID. The activist was very concerned about submitting ID documents through insecure channels, and wondered whether Facebook would securely store or share the personal data once submitted. We could not answer that question.
You can learn more about how the real names policy hurts people in the open letter delivered to Facebook today by the Nameless Coalition, which includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Bytes for All (Pakistan), and many other groups around the world.
Facebook is an unprecedented platform for freedom of expression, for connecting with others, and for driving a human rights agenda — but it must become a safer and more accommodating place for these activities to take place. And that starts with a change to Facebook’s real name policy. If you agree, we encourage you to sign our petition here — and please pass the word along!