4 Lessons We’ve Learned About Facebook’s Name Policy

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By Thomas Zukowski

In September several hundred Facebook users had their personal accounts suspended for using pseudonyms, stage names, or other aliases different from their “legal name.” Members of the LGBT community were disproportionately affected, as drag queens and transgender performers with names like "Sister Roma" and "Lil Miss Hot Mess" were told to change their profiles or risk deactivation. The security policy was met with criticism and protests, leading Facebook to publicly apologize and reexamine its enforcement procedures.

Here are four key lessons we learned from the story about Facebook's name policy.

1. It affects more than drag queens.

Beyond the transgender community, many people have reasons to conceal their actual identities on Facebook. Medical and mental health professionals often use pseudonyms to keep their clients from contacting them. Entertainers and public figures use different names to hide from stalkers and overzealous fans. Sex Educator Sunny Megatron says she has received numerous emails with threats of violence: "It was imperative to my and my family’s safety that we always remain untraceable. I have operated this way for years and never used my legal name on any form of social media."

2. Facebook relies on its community to self-police.

So how would someone like Lil Miss Hot Mess get cited in the first place? Christopher Cox, Facebook’s Chief Production Officer, explained that the network relies on its users to report fake accounts. Unfortunately, this type of enforcement is often ripe for abuse. In one case, a Hawaiian-born man was targeted despite using his real name. Chase Nahooikaikakeolamauloaokalani Silva had his account frozen, and according to him, proving his identity was difficult: “I am a proud Hawaiian who wants to be able to display my Hawaiian given name.

3. Your real name isn't necessarily your legal name.

When asked to clarify Facebook’s rules, Cox explained that a person’s real identity is “not necessarily the name that appears on their legal documentation.” He noted in his apology, "Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that's Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that's Lil Miss Hot Mess.” As to how this will be enforced remains to be seen.

4. Not much has changed (yet).

Following Cox’s apology, many users are still awaiting reactivation. Leena, a Saudi Arabian transgender woman, has claimed that Facebook’s apology and promises of reinstatement mean little outside of the United States. In a region where transgender people face severe discrimination, it would be risky for Leena to acquire alternate documentation. Furthermore, the Facebook terms of service state that people must use their “authentic identities,” a clause that leaves a lot up to interpretation.

Despite Facebook’s recent hiccups, most would agree that an authentic name policy is necessary for network security. As Cox said in a blog post, "The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it's both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good."

What are your thoughts on Facebook's name policy?