New Times,
New Thinking.

2 October 2014

I’m glad Facebook has rolled back its “real names” policy – here’s what to do next

Facebook has backed down on making users go by their “real” names. It needs to realise that outness is a spectrum, and realness is best defined by the people who assume a name, not by a corporate policy.

By Margaret Corvid

When I heard the news that Facebook had backpedalled on its demands that its users adhere to a strict policy of legal names only, I felt a wild surge of relief and gratitude. Margaret Corvid is not my birth name, but it is my real name. As a sex worker who writes about sex work and kink, I used my chosen name on Facebook because it embodies me in public life, and because it protects my family from bullying and harassment. Many have a much more serious need; a chosen name is all that protects them from the social forces that would marginalise, criminalise or even kill them.

A group of drag queens, led by Sister Roma, a veteran performer and political activist from San Francisco, fought back when Facebook began systematically to lock them out of their profiles, demanding name verification. Along with many LGBT and trans people, their accouints had been reported – most likely maliciously, in a huge batch. Facebook’s initial response of locking them out of their accounts sparked a roar of outrage online, crystallised in the #mynameis campaign. As Facebook temporarily reinstated the accounts, they gave the affected users a fortnight to change to their real names, or convert their accounts to fan pages.

Garnering support from San Francisco city supervisor David Campos, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – along with trans people, victims of stalking and abuse, and privacy advocates – protested and met with Facebook community liaisons. Yesterday, Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox stated, in an example of backpedalling that would be at home at a White House press briefing, that there would be a “fix” to the policy which had been improperly applied. Although it is unclear what form the new policy will take, victory celebrations are planned for today in San Francisco.

I’m proud of the campaigners who responded so powerfully to the real name threat, and I am grateful to Facebook for listening. But this victory was not corporate magnanimity. It was gained by a movement which placed immense pressure on the social media titan. Against the backdrop of a surprisingly rapid wave of defections to emerging rival Ello and supported by a powerful politician in a city of the technical elite, the drag queens of San Francisco won an arm-wrestling match against a social media giant. But as they celebrate we all must press on with the fight to build an ethical name policy.

To a certain generation, it might seem petty to lavish such attention on the rules of a website. You could, they might say, simply not use Facebook. But, quietly, Facebook has gradually become important. It’s not just a place where we post pictures of the last drunk night out. We plan everything from social gatherings to political revolutions on the pages and chats of the platform. Movements from the English Defence League to Podemos were largely conceived there. People find jobs and conduct the business of their careers there; if I were to be locked out of my account, I would lose access to dynamic, professional writers groups that have quickly become essential to me. To be kicked off Facebook because it decrees that your name is wrong is to have a great mantle of social power ripped from your shoulders.

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That San Francisco stood up to Facebook for its marginalised citizens is not a happy fluke. Activists, largely working through Facebook itself, used its organising power against it. In the last few years, a good half of my friends have taken up assumed names there, and these people – from all walks of life – defected en masse to Ello. I learned of Ello from Facebook, and my news feed filled with my friends’ Ello screen names. This happened at an astonishing rate.

This groundswell is an inspiring turn in the history of activism online. There were no leaflets, no email lists, no committee meetings. There were figureheads, like Sister Roma and Kitty Stryker, but there were no leaders. The campaign was deep; the press have highlighted the drag queens, often without acknowledging the mobilisation of trans people, feminists and many other activists against the policy. Propaganda was made of memes and forwarded posts, popularised by acclaim. If we can respond so quickly, leaving Facebook in our thousands in a number of weeks, what else can we do?

There is also a message here to government. The people of the internet, even the ones who don’t live in your district, are a constituency that deserves representation. Facebook, in its decisions, has more social influence than many states, but there are no democratic levers to control it. A city leader allied with a social movement to speak with a corporation whose policies within its own website are not accountable to anyone, and won. I am hungry for more of this, and to make it happen we need more than online organisation. In a world where our credit rating may one day be determined in part by our social media friendships, we need to recognise the import of social media in our daily lives. We should enshrine rights online in law, including the right to privacy, from the public and the state; if Facebook extracts so much value from us, we deserve these rights in return.

We should press on, while we have the advantage and the public eye. Cox calls on Facebook users to go by the name they use in their every day lives, but Facebook should abandon its need to verify identity. Outness is a spectrum, and realness is best defined by the people who assume a name, not by a corporate policy. Trans people, survivors of abuse, and members of sensitive professions ranging from teaching to sex work need protective names, and some might feel safe with Facebook aving access to verification information which it will not disclose without a court order. But not all situations, or all courts, are alike. Members of communities worldwide in which sexual minorities are criminalised need chosen names too – and, in many countries, they also need protection from a state that might target them. In drawing up its policy on people’s right to assume a name, Facebook must get to grips with real dilemmas of protecting its members privacy in the face of state and cultural pressure. As gays and lesbians are arrested and killed in Uganda, and as Hong Kong protesters face imprisonment and death, Facebook needs to own up to its now-vast responsibilities, and realise its power transcends state boundaries. If the iPhone can make its handsets opaque to state surveillance, Facebook can too.

Harassment, a pernicious problem on Facebook, has been a regular excuse for real name policies. Unfortunately, the accountability gained is false and superficial. This approach largely neglects the point that the people who are pushing the debate forward about harassment – feminists, people of colour, and activists – are often its target. As the online freedom campaigning group, Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, its proposed solutions “don’t get to the heart of the problem: the real names policy itself”. As we demand real names, we merely promote the status quo while compromising privacy. A more direct, if slower, solution would be to address the root social causes of harassment, rather than to police identity; even now, that is outside the scope of a website.

Despite its power and its potential, Facebook is there to extract value from us. It’s not there to help us make change, and it is unaccountable. In its brilliance, it has shown millions of people what a social network can do. Even within the confines of a social network built for profit, the people have taken control of the concept of identity. But the next social network will have to be ruled by, and for, the people.

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