Facebook relaxes 'real name' policy in face of protest

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Facebook has announced plans to water down its controversial “real names” policy, after lobbying from civil liberties groups worldwide.

The new rules still officially require the use of “authentic names” on the site, something which has previously resulted in criticism from varied groups including the drag community, Native Americans, and trans people. While Facebook does not require the use of “legal names” on the site, it does demand that users identify with the name that other people know them by.

Enforcement of that rule has been difficult, however, with the company struggling to distinguish between authentic but unusual names and fakes, jokes or other identifiers which breach the policy.

Now, the company is making two major changes to its enforcement of the rule, which it hopes will result in fewer vulnerable individuals caught in the net, while still allowing it to censure users who simply make up a fake name for themselves.

Firstly, the site will now allow users to “provide more information about their circumstances” in order to “give additional details or context on their unique situation”.

According to the company’s VP of Growth, Alex Schultz, this should allow Facebook to accurately assess whether the name supplied fits with the rules. Additionally, he says: “It will help us better understand the reasons why people can’t currently confirm their name, informing potential changes we make in the future.”

Secondly, the company will require that users who flag others for using fake names also provide more context. Falsely flagging profiles for using a fake name has become a popular tool of harassment on the site, since Facebook often suspends profiles which it believes are breaching the real name policy.

Now, the site is building “a new version of the profile reporting process that requires people to provide additional information about why they are reporting a profile.

“This will help our teams better understand why someone is reporting a profile, giving them more information about the specific situation.”

Schultz outlined the changes in a letter responding to requests from the EFF, Human Rights Watch, ACLU and others to provide “equal treatment and protection for all who use and depend on Facebook as a central platform for online expression and communication”.

But other aspects of the privacy groups’ requests were rebuffed by Facebook. One request was for users to be able to confirm their identities without submitting government ID; the groups suggested “allowing users to submit written evidence, answer multiple-choice questions, or provide alternative documentation such as links to blogposts or other online platforms where they use the same identity”.

Schultz’s response was to point out that Facebook no longer requires exclusively government-issued IDs to verify identities. Instead, he said, “people can confirm their name with many forms of non-legal identification, including things like utility bills, a bank statement, a piece of mail, a library card, a school ID card or a magazine subscription label”. The company does not, however, allow people who are known by a different name online and off- to provide evidence supporting their online persona on Facebook.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Monday 2nd November 2015 11.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010