Open Letter to Facebook on Real Name Policy

Publication date: 
October 2015
Publisher: 
APC

Dear Facebook,

We write to call on Facebook to fix its broken “authentic identity” (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:

  • Transgender and gender variant people whose legal names don’t accord with their gender identity

  • People who use a pseudonym or name modification in order to protect themselves from physical violence, legal threats from repressive governments, or harassment on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, or political activities

  • People who have been silenced by attackers abusing Facebook’s “Fake Name” reporting option

  • People whose legal names don’t fit the arbitrary standards of “real names” developed by Facebook, such as Native Americans, other ethnic minorities, and members of the clergy.

Despite commitments to reform these policies, Facebook maintains a system that disregards the circumstances of users in non-western countries, exposes its users to danger, disrespects the identities of its users, and curtails free speech.

Abuse Reports Silence Vulnerable Users

Under Facebook’s current policies, users create profiles using the names they use “in real life.” 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, South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East report that groups have deliberately organized (sometimes even coordinating via Facebook) to silence their targets using the ‘Report Abuse’ button.

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. 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 localities 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. A policy of excluding users in a discriminatory manner also violates European Union regulations and the spirit of US civil rights laws.13 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 non-western countries , 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:

  • Commit to allowing pseudonyms and non-legal names on its site in appropriate circumstances, including but not limited to situations where using an every day name would put a user in danger, or situations where local law requires the ability to use pseudonyms.

  • Require users filing real name policy abuse reports to support their claims with evidence. This could come in written form, multiple-choice questions, or some alternative documentation.

  • Create a compliance process through which users can confirm their identities without submitting government ID. This could include allowing users to submit written evidence, answer multiple-choice questions, or provide alternative documentation such as links to blog posts or other online platforms where they use the same identity.

  • Give users technical details and documentation on the process of submitting identity information such as where and how it is stored, for how long, and who can access it. Provide users with the ability to submit this information using PGP or another common form of encrypted communication, so they may protect their identity information during the submission process.

  • Provide a robust appeals process for users locked out of their accounts. This could include the ability to request a second review, to submit different types of evidence, and to speak to a real Facebook employee, especially in cases involving safety.

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

  • ACLU of California

  • American Civil Liberties Union

  • Anja Kovacs and Nayantara Ranganathan, Internet Democracy Project, India

  • Article 19

  • Associated Whistle-Blowing Press

  • Association for Progressive Communications

  • Association Okvir, Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Bishakha Datta and Smita Vanniyar, Point of View, India

  • Bolo Bhi, Pakistan

  • Bytes for All, Pakistan

  • Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)

  • Center for Media Justice

  • Civil & Liberal Initiative for Peace, Afghanistan

  • Color of Change

  • Demand Progress

  • Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan

  • Electronic Frontier Foundation

  • Engage Media

  • FeminismInIndia.com, India

  • ForabetterFB Campaign

  • Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellows

  • 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

  • Instituto Bem Estar, Brasil

  • Instituto Demos, Guatemala

  • Instituto Panameño de Derecho y Nuevas Tecnologías

  • Internet Democracy Project, Anja Kovacs and Nayantara Ranganathan, India

  • International Modern Media Institute

  • IP Justice

  • Library Freedom Project, US

  • Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan

  • Metamorphosis, Foundation for Internet and Society, Macedonia

  • Misneach Nua Eabhrac, NY

  • New Media Rights

  • One World Platform Foundation (Bosnia Herzegovina)

  • OpenMedia

  • Privacy & Access Council of Canada

  • Point of View, Bishakha Datta and Smita Vanniyar, India

  • Privacy & Access Council of Canada

  • R3D, Mexico

  • Si Jeunesse Savait, Democratic Republic of Congo

  • 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

  • Software Freedom Law Center, US

  • Sunil Abraham, Computer Society of India

  • Transgender Law Center

  • Urgent Action Fund

  • WITNESSWomen from the Internet, Serbia

  • Women, Action, & the Media

  • Women’s Media Center Speech Project

  • Youth, Technology, and Health

  • Ženskaposla.ba, feminist portal Bosnia Herzegovina

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