Facebook’s Real Name Policy Asks Difficult Questions About Online Anonymity

Facebook’s “real name” policy has come under fire in recent months for its decisive stance against online anonymity. What’s being questioned is the legitimacy of such a position, and the practice (and the cost) of enforcing it.

Despite good intentions, the policy is an exercise in poor judgement that directly affects the liberties of the LGBT community, domestic abuse survivors, Native Americans, and other members of online society attempting to escape harassment.

Has Facebook Forgotten What’s in a Name?

At the heart of this matter is the undeniable right to freedom of expression, but Facebook’s terms of service prohibit accountholders from using aliases and fake-sounding names. The policy goes on to request that users go by their “authentic name”—not, curiously enough, one’s legal name—as a way of fostering a “safer community” for all.

When asked if the policy would continue, in a Q&A located on his personal Facebook page, CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded with an answer that alluded to the necessity of such rules for policing and rooting out abusive behavior.

It’s worth pointing out that, according to a recent article from Wired.com writer Nadia Drake, there is currently no data available to suggest there has been any decrease in online harassment on the site.

Let’s not forget that online harassment is not restricted to social media, and is a problem that transcends geographical boundaries. The fact that Facebook has entered the record books as the most heavily populated nation in the world, with more active users than people living in China, helps put things into perspective.

Why Pseudonyms are Still a Necessity for Some

The reality is that for survivors of domestic abuse, pseudonyms are useful in the way they protect a person’s privacy. New research from a NNEDV 24-hour survey has found that, in the U.S. alone, one in four women have suffered domestic abuse–and this rate is consistent within the LGBT community as well.

Over 188 million American adults now use Facebook, and if one in four women claim to be victims of domestic violence, that’s 23 million users whose lives are at risk. This, at least, makes the actions of the social network somewhat comprehensible.

However, it would seem a more viable approach to penalize actual offenders than impose a blanket ban on pseudonyms, which effectively places the burden upon Internet-law-abiding citizens.

Pros and Cons of Using a Pseudonym

Outside of this context, there are a great many positive aspects associated with using an alias on Facebook and elsewhere, but there are some downsides as well.

A few of these are outlined below:

Pro: Anyone working for a government agency or for an information-sensitive industry may feel more secure in their role knowing that nothing they say or do online could jeopardize their career.

Pro: Those with dissenting or unpopular political opinions who would feel uncomfortable about expressing these views with the public at large are given a voice in their personal and professional lives.

Pro: There are more opportunities to discuss sensitive subjects relating to medical conditions, abuse, and sexual orientation, without any perceived or potentially negative ramifications—emotional or otherwise.

Con: Online activity reduced to impersonal conversations through pen names or avatars can detach people from realistic social expectations and environments, which can end up doing more harm than good.

Con: While not necessarily specific to individuals, creating a culture of anonymity can chip away at the idea of accountability in the digital age and give rise to an increase in identity theft.

These are some of the things that Facebook’s real name policy does not take into account in its current iteration. More importantly, pseudonyms lose their effectiveness over time as more content is attributed to them, thereby making a “fake” account just as real as the next.

Add to this the fact that, when it comes to the Internet, everything is indexed, archived, and on display for perpetuity. Nothing short of a pseudonym will protect a person’s civil liberties from this kind of enduring “fame.” It’s unfortunate, but until this policy changes to keep pace with modern times, Facebook’s “solution” will feel sorely lacking.

Why Pseudonyms Don’t Represent the End Times

Facebook is reacting to a situation that has been around for years, and while any “free” service that depends on advertising dollars must make an effort to keep its users’ information accurate and up-to-date, this approach seems quite out of step considering the future it’s trying to build.

It’s not without reason that Facebook’s users have taken to the streets to protest the legitimacy of the company’s decision to bar accounts that violate a flimsy pretext for conformity. The last thing the social media giant needs is a PR disaster, but that’s exactly what’s happened.

Only time will tell if this new digital divide will create an unbridgeable rift that sparks a mass exodus. Perhaps the question is not if, but when. Just ask MySpace.

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