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Open Letter: Facebook Must Change its Broken “Real Name” Policy

Categories: Campaign, Censorship, Free Expression, Human Rights, Threatened Voices
Dana Lone Hill, Preetha GP and Sands Fish all had their Facebook accounts suspended under the "authentic name" policy. Photos via Twitter, Facebook.

Dana Lone Hill, Preetha GP and Sands Fish all had their Facebook accounts suspended under the “authentic name” policy. Photos via Twitter, Facebook.

The following letter was drafted by the Nameless Coalition, a group of NGOs (including Global Voices) representing individuals who have experienced harm as a result of Facebook's “authentic identity” (aka “real name”) policy. We invite anyone interested in joining this effort to sign a petition for the effort at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Action Center [1], who we've partnered with on the effort.

Dear Facebook,

We write to call on Facebook to fix its broken “authentic identity” [2] (commonly known as “real name”) policy. It’s time for Facebook to provide equal treatment and protection for all who use and depend on Facebook as a central platform for online expression and communication.

We are a coalition of people and organizations who work to protect the rights of women, indigenous and ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ people, and Internet users who have found Facebook’s name policies to be culturally biased and technically flawed. We represent:

Despite commitments to reform these policies [3], Facebook maintains a system that disregards the circumstances of users in countries with low levels of Internet penetration and poor connectivity, exposes its users to danger, disrespects the identities of its users, and curtails free speech.


Read this letter in Arabic [4]  Bangla [5]  Chinese (simplified) [6]  Farsi [7]  French [8]  

Hindi [9]  Hungarian [10]  Italian [11]  Malayalam [12] Russian [13] Spanish [14]  Tamil [15]  Telugu  [16] Urdu [17]


Abuse Reports Silence Vulnerable Users

Under Facebook’s current policies, users create profiles using the names they use “in real life.” [18] When a user first creates a profile, Facebook does not require proof of identity.

Any user can easily file reports with Facebook claiming that a fellow user is violating this policy, and has no obligation to submit evidence supporting their claim. Any user can file as many reports as they wish, as quickly as they wish, allowing targeted reporting sprees. This has led to unfair application of the policy, and provides people who wish harm upon communities like ours with a dangerous and effective tool. One abuse report can silence a user indefinitely.

Facebook users in the global LGBTQ community [19], South and Southeast Asia [20] and the Middle East [21] report that groups have deliberately organized (sometimes even coordinating via Facebook) to silence their targets using the “Report Abuse” button. [22]

A “Name in Real Life” Is Not an ID

In the face of an abuse report (regardless of the report’s merit), users who wish to maintain their accounts must submit proof of identification. Facebook acknowledges that profile names may not match legal names, and has repeatedly emphasized that government-issued ID is not required. Yet the types of ID that Facebook asks for in the “report abuse” process, whether issued by a government or private entity, do not necessarily feature a person’s nickname or “real life” name—especially for transgender people and others who modify their names to protect themselves from harm. ID from a private institution is also often linked to a person’s legal identity and government-issued identification number.

This process can put users who use a name other than their legal name for safety or privacy purposes in real danger. In some cases Facebook has reinstated accounts with the legal name of users who have submitted government-issued ID in accordance with Facebook’s policies, exposing them to abusive former partners, politically-motivated attacks, and threats of real-life violence.

Facebook’s Enforcement Process Leaves Users Without a Remedy

For years, Facebook has known about the flaws in their appeals process across the service, yet have not addressed them. [23] Individuals without a type of ID that Facebook accepts are left without recourse. IDs must be submitted to Facebook within ten days of notice, disadvantaging users who do not have daily access to the Internet, many of whom live in places with low levels of internet penetration. Those who fail to submit IDs in the allotted time period are locked out of their accounts, preventing both communication with other users and downloads of account data for use elsewhere. Excluded users are not provided with the right to appeal for access to accounts.

ID Process Endangers User Data

Users who opt to send Facebook their identification information are told that their information is secure, but are given no information about how Facebook treats their data. Users often send their ID documents to Facebook through unencrypted emails—particularly concerning for users who are subject to surveillance for the political work they do.

This Policy Raises Legal Concerns

Under international human rights standards, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and to provide remedies for any abuses they cause or contribute to [24]. A policy of excluding users in a discriminatory manner also violates European Union regulations [25] and the spirit of US civil rights laws. If Facebook maintains these policies and practices, it will build a reputation as a dangerous place for women and girls, LGBTQ people, and many others. It will also continue to run afoul of countries with more stringent data protection requirements. If the company wants to do right by its current and future users without discrimination, particularly those in countries with low levels of Internet penetration and poor connectivity, it must strive to meet the needs of its users.

Proposed Policy Changes

As a coalition, we believe Facebook should get rid of its real names policy altogether. But until then, we demand that Facebook fulfill its promise to support the dignity, safety, and expressive rights of all users by making the following changes in its policy and process:

We look forward to working with Facebook to develop concrete and meaningful changes to its name policy and would welcome the opportunity to participate in strengthening these policies to ensure the rights and free speech of all Facebook users. But we are also dealing with communities that have had their ability to communicate with each other decimated by this policy. That is why we are asking Facebook to respond to these proposed changes by October 31. Our communities recognize the common injury this policy currently inflicts and we will not stop advocating until fundamental changes are made.

Signed,

Access
American Civil Liberties Union
ACLU of California
APC
Article 19
Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles, Argentina
Associated Whistle-Blowing Press
Association for Progressive Communications
Association Okvir, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bolo Bhi, Pakistan
Bytes for All, Pakistan
Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)
Center for Media Justice, US
Civil & Liberal Initiative for Peace, Afghanistan
Color of Change, US
Demand Progress, US
Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Engage Media, Asia-Pacific
FeminismInIndia.com, India
ForabetterFB Campaign
Free Women Writers, Afghanistan
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Fundacion Karisma, Colombia
Global Voices Advox
GSA Network
Hiperderecho de Perú
Hivos, IGmena (Middle East)
Human Rights Watch
Hyderabad for Feminism, India
InMedia Hong Kong
Instituto Bem Estar Brasil
Instituto DEMOS, Guatemala
Instituto Panameño de Derecho y Nuevas Tecnologías
International Modern Media Institute
Internet Democracy Project, Anja Kovacs and Nayantara Ranganathan, India
IP Justice, US
Library Freedom Project, US
Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan
Metamorphosis, Foundation for Internet and Society, Macedonia
Misneach Nua Eabhrac, US
New Media Rights
One World Platform Foundation (Bosnia Herzegovina)
OpenMedia, Canada
Osama Manzar for the Digital Empowerment Foundation, India
Point of View, Bishakha Datta and Smita Vanniyar, India
Privacy & Access Council of Canada
R3D, Mexico
Si Jeunesse Savait, Democratic Republic of Congo
Software Freedom Law Center, US
SonTusDatos
Sunil Abraham, Computer Society of India
Technology For the People, India
TEDIC
Transgender Law Center, US
Urgent Action Fund
WITNESS, US
Women from the Internet, Serbia
Women, Action, & the Media
Women's Media Center Speech Project
Youth, Technology, and Health
Ženskaposla.ba, feminist portal Bosnia Herzegovina