What’s in a real name? Ask Facebook

A few weeks ago, my whole world changed.

It may sound a tad dramatic but Facebook has become my main medium of communication with family, friends and work contacts over the last few years. I have used it almost daily since 2009 like email: to write to my friends and send files to my editors. It was a source of news, entertainment, communication. While never a Facebook junkie who posted photos of their breakfast, it was nice to have a platform for when I needed help: how do I fix my Macbook? Does anyone know a good dry cleaner? It’s handy to have all your friends at your fingertips – most of the time – and so I was a happy Facebook user for almost 7 years.

That way of life has been taken away from me; a few weeks ago, Facebook sent me a message asking for my ID to verify my name. This is in line with their “real name” policy requiring all consumers to use what is known as their “authentic’’ names. I was not given a 24 hour grace period, just halted with a demand to see my personal information and a case number. From that day I was unable to access any of my messages and am now effectively cut off from some friends and family who I only contact via Facebook Messenger.

Facebook came under intense criticism for not allowing drag queens and transgender people to use their “real name”, which for them is not necessarily the name they were born with. Protests were staged in San Francisco by the #MyNameIs campaigners in May and protestors managed to successfully illicit an apology from Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product office. The apology was made specifically to drags queens and any individuals with unusual names who showed up on their radar.

However, there is another issue that the #MyNameIs campaigners tried to point out: that there are many people who are unable to reveal their full name on social media sites. Victims of abuse and violence, police, people working in counter-terrorism, teachers and various others whose identity should not be posted on the internet for all to see. What of the regular folk who just like their privacy. Don’t they have a right to choose what information they show to the world?

There are other ways of staying in touch I suppose

At least no one else reads my snail mail

Senior government security experts in the UK advise the public not to put their personal details on social media. Andy Smith, an internet security chief at the Cabinet Office, suggested that, with the exception of government forms, “when you put information on the internet do not use your real name, your real date of birth… because it can be used against you”. Of course, Facebook took exception to Mr Smith’s recommendation given at the Parliament and the Internet Conference back in 2012.

The only government body to take on Facebook’s real name policy so far is in Germany. The Hamburg Data Protection Authority ruled that Facebook cannot enforce the real name policy or demand ID from users. Facebook has expressed its disappointment with the ruling, but I couldn’t be more delighted. It only happened this year and I hope that this is the first of many such changes.

Why is it that the government don’t want you to tell the world your inside leg measurement and blood type? Because it causes trouble. Identity theft, stalking, unsolicited collection of data and cyber bullying leaves the door wide open for con artists to step in an manipulate children and other vulnerable members of our society – many of whom have social media accounts. Facebook is not a government body, they don’t have the right to demand ID and “real names” – and they know it.

With the outcry over Facebook’s real name policy, Mark “Mr Facebook” Zuckerberg decided to clarify what their policy really means:

“Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that”

So why are we being asked to show Facebook our ID? I am using my real name, but it’s slightly different to what is on my passport. If “authentic names” include nicknames, stage names, pen names – any name that you go by in real life. So I should be ok, right Mr Facebook? That’s what you said.

I’ve given my authentic name as required, but Facebook won’t accept it. Do you think they have special passports and library cards for victims of domestic violence with their assumed name? What about the transgender people who are currently undergoing a sex change. They may still have the name Elizabeth on their Visa card statements but they’re working towards becoming Rodrigo. How do such individuals get around the ID rule?

Facebook don’t check ID with a thought for our safety – what they want from us is data. Names, birthdays, hometown, high schools and places of work are pieces of information that can be very lucrative marketing material when handed to the right people. You may not think that your marital status or place of residence is personal information, it probably wasn’t once. Now it’s all very useful.

After three weeks in social media limbo and submitting a copy of my passport (with my last name and other personal details concealed) Facebook have responded to my pleas for continued access to my account – and the answer is no. My name isn’t real enough, my ID isn’t sufficient and a lady called Maude (no last name) is sorry to hear that I am concerned about safety on their site: “Facebook is about sharing, and our privacy controls give you the power to decide what and how much you share”

Sharing what exactly, my data with their company?

Maude suggested that I block people who I don’t want to share my information with. What a brilliant plan, I may as well have no contacts so I can keep it all to myself. That’s exactly what I shall be doing from now on.

So here it is, Facebook. This verification thing – it seems that ID just won’t do. It’s kind of rude that you even asked. If you really wanted to verify that I exist, that I am an authentic person with a real name, why don’t you just ask 4 of my contacts on Facebook? It’s a lot easier, you have a good chance of keeping Facebook nice and “safe” and letting us keep that small scrap of dignity that comes with personal privacy. If Facebook won’t let me live within my rights then I will have to go it alone. I can go back to emailing – even calling. I can’t write letters and hang out at the park or the beauty salon instead of socialising online. I’ll do anything, but no matter how big and scary the social media giant may be I refuse to feed it my soul. I’ve chosen privacy over convenience.

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