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Facebook Apologizes for Real Name Policy’s Impact, But No Real Changes Yet

Matt Cagle,
Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney, ACLU of Northern California
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October 3, 2014

Wednesday the ACLU, along with a coalition of partner organizations, went to Facebook to urge it to fix a flawed policy that requires users to speak in a voice other than the one they prefer.

Facebook’s current “real name” policy requires users to display the name featured on a formal piece of identification when they speak to the world on the platform. By conditioning user speech on the use of an identity preferred by Facebook, this policy raises free speech concerns. These concerns are particularly acute for some users, including transgender people with government IDs not matching their preferred name and domestic violence survivors who choose a pseudonym to protect themselves and their privacy.

More than a billion people rely on Facebook to communicate and connect with friends, family and their communities. And too often, people find themselves silenced for allegedly breaking a company rule and left without meaningful recourse. That’s what happened this past month when enforcement of the name policy had the effect of blocking many in the LGBTQ community from using the social network.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Facebook apologized for the harm that the current policy has caused users, especially those in the LGBTQ community, and promised to improve its reporting, enforcement, and appeals processes. This is an important first step, but there have not been any policy changes yet. We will be watching Facebook to ensure the company puts its resources where its mouth is and follows through with real policy changes.

Yet this discussion is about more than “real names.” It’s about Facebook’s responsibility to take the necessary steps to ensure all users are treated in a fair and transparent manner. Previously, the inconsistent application of Facebook’s “community standards” has taken down other content including photos of two men kissing, a nursing mother, and even a cancer survivor. In another more ironic example of how these standards were enforced, the ACLU even had its own content improperly censored by Facebook.

In that case, the ACLU had the means to reach out to Facebook and quickly get the content restored. But for the many users whose profiles are suspended for allegedly violating the names policy or community standards, the lack of a meaningful appeals process means they often end up silenced. That’s why the coalition reminded Facebook that policies and processes that reduce discriminatory targeting and improper silencing of user voices are essential.

For many Facebook users, a real name is the one they prefer to speak with – even if that does not match a formal ID. Facebook is beginning to recognize this reality. Unfortunately, many users still remain locked out of their accounts or are being forced to display a name other than the one they prefer and that may raise safety risks. It’s time for Facebook to change its policy and procedures to give users meaningful free speech and due process rights on the platform.

A version of this post originally ran on the blog of the ACLU of Northern California

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