Facebook has historically held a 'Real Name' policy, where they require users to 'provide the name they use in real life'. To many that might seem easy to do, they simply use their real name and build an account. From their they connect with friends, make new connections, share their life with people on line. But in some cases this experience comes to a sudden halt, as Facebook chooses to suspend their account for not meeting this 'Real Name' policy.
I even experienced this myself, my current account being my second one, as my first was deleted by Facebook for apparently breaking these rules. I, like many others, was told that the name I had been using on my account had been reported as not being my true name, and that I would be required to provide photographic identification as proof that I was actually me and get my account back.
To try and understand why certain accounts might have been deleted I took a look at the Facebook website, and found these guidelines;
'Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.'
'The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life and as our acceptable identification forms would show.'
'Nicknames can be used as a first or middle name if they're a variation of your authentic name (like Bob instead of Robert).'
'You can also list an additional name on your account (ex: maiden name, nickname, professional name).'
'Pretending to be anything or anyone isn't allowed.'
So, from what Facebook state in their rules is that you have to use the name you go by in everyday life, but not necessarily your legal name. After all, if everyone knows you by a name that isn't your legal name, then that's surely what's most important to them according to their rules right?
Well, it is, but it isn't. You see, if someone wants to report your account as using a false name, then the burden of proving that the name you use is suddenly yours to prove, rather than the accuser having to prove that it isn't your name. The sudden flaw in Facebooks statement that the name you use in real life is fine to use starts to fall apart when they ask for legal identification.
I know people in both real life whose names aren't their legal names. I know a Luigi who goes by Gino, a James who goes by Seamus. These aren't their legal names, but everyone calls them by these other names, even their partners and parents. They sign up to things using these names, they live by these names, it's who they are. And it's the same for some people on Facebook who have suddenly been caught out by this policy.
The whole system of the name you live by needing to be confirmed by some legal documentation is a flawed one, and that flaw has led to many people having their Facebook experience ruined.
When my account was deleted I was told that to reactivate it I would need to provide photographic identification to get it back. This was almost fifteen months ago, I was further behind in my transition then. I wasn't living every moment of my life as me yet. Unfortunately, I had to go to work presenting as male, using my birth name, but despite this everyone else in my life knew the real me. I presented as me, I was called Amy by damn near everyone I knew, even some of the people I worked with, where I presented male, called me Amy. That's who I was, but because I didn't have any ID stating that at that time my account was denied to me.
I emailed Facebook, explained the situation to them, told them that I was still undergoing transition and as such couldn't provide them with the ID. I hoped that they would understand my situation, that they might allow me to have my account back. Instead I was told that without ID my account would be deleted, and told that I must use my 'real' name on Facebook, that 'impersonating' other people was against their community standards and would not be tolerated.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident, thousands of other people were experiencing the exact same situation. These people ranged from transgender, like myself, to members of the Native American population, to people trying to escape domestic abuse and beyond.
The Facebook 'Real Name' policy effected so many people, from so many different backgrounds. It made people have to give up their on line lives. It hurt people's professional careers. It put some people's lives in physical danger. Something that might seem so trivial to some had a profound affect on so many people. And people weren't happy about it.
Protests were held, talks were had and people spread the message about Facebook's double standards, where people can use nicknames or past names okay, but people using their real names, the names they live their lives under was suddenly unacceptable.
Facebook argued that this policy was a good thing, I guessing feeling that if in every group of people blocked from the site wrongly if they caught one troll then it would all be worth it. They said, 'The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying 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 of the reality that this policy, on balance, when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.'
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg added fuel onto the fire in the early days of the debate by commenting that 'You have one identity...Having two identities for yourself is an example of lack of integrity.'
Further comment was given following this, where Zuckerberg attempted to defend the policy, claiming that people did not fully understand the exact details of the site's requirements, and that the policy is in place to protect vulnerable users. Despite this assurance, he did agree that the policy wasn't perfect, and said 'We are working on better and more ways for people to show us what their real name is so we can both keep this policy which protects so many people in our community whilst also serving the transgender community.'
Thankfully, this comment was not just empty platitudes and Facebook have this week announced that it plans to change the policy. On Tuesday Facebook said that it will test new tools that will allow users to share any special circumstance they feel means they cannot use their real name on the site.
'We require people to use the name their friends and family know them by,' the company said. 'When people use the names they are known by, their actions and words carry more weight because they are more accountable for what they say. We are firmly committed to this policy and it is not changing.'
'However, after hearing feedback from our community, we recognise that it's also important that this policy works for everyone, especially for communities who are marginalised and face discrimination.'
Facebook has also said that it will be adding a new tool for reporting accounts that might have fake names, needing the person who is reporting the account to provide more context in their complaint than was previously required.
'In the past, people were simply able to report a 'fake name' but now they will be required to go through several new steps that provide us with more specifics about the report,' Facebook said. 'This additional context will help our review teams better understand why someone is reporting the name, giving them more information about a specific situation.'
Time will tell just how effective these new tools will be, and whether some people will continue to find themselves blocked and deleted for doing nothing more than simply being themselves, but hopefully this marks the beginnings of a practical solution.