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Facebook and its Aversion to Anonymous and Pseudonymous Speech

Posted by Jessamine Mathew at Jul 04, 2014 07:53 AM |
Jessamine Mathew explores Facebook's "real name" policy and its implications for the right to free speech.

The power to be unidentifiable on the internet has been a major reason for its sheer number of users. Most of the internet can now be freely used by anybody under a pseudonym without the fear of being recognised by anybody else. These conditions allow for the furtherance of free expression and protection of privacy on the internet, which is particularly important for those who use the internet as a medium to communicate political dissent or engage in any other activity which would be deemed controversial in a society yet not illegal. For example, an internet forum for homosexuals in India, discussing various issues which surround homosexuality may prove far more fruitful if contributors are given the option of being undetectable, considering the stigma that surrounds homosexuality in India, and the recent setting-aside of the Delhi High Court decision reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The possibility of being anonymous or pseudonymous exists on many internet fora but on Facebook, the world’s greatest internet space for building connections and free expression, there is no sanction given to pseudonymous accounts as Facebook follows a real name policy. And as the recent decision of a New York judge, disallowing Facebook from contesting warrants on private information of over 300 of its users, shows, there are clear threats to freedom of expression and privacy.

On the subject of using real names, Facebook’s Community Standards states, “Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.” Facebook’s Marketing Director, Randi Zuckerberg, bluntly dismissed the idea of online anonymity as one that “has to go away” and that people would “behave much better” if they are made to use their real names. Apart from being a narrow-minded statement, she fails to realise that there are many different kinds of expression on the internet, from stories of sexual abuse victims to the views of political commentators, or indeed, whistleblowers, many of whom may prefer to use the platform without being identified. It has been decided in many cases that humans have a right to anonymity as it provides for the furtherance of free speech without the fear of retaliation or humiliation (see Talley v. California).

While Facebook’s rationale behind wanting users to register for accounts with their own names is based on the goal of maintaining the security of other users, it is still a serious infraction on users’ freedom of expression, particularly when anonymous speech has been protected by various countries. Facebook has evolved from a private space for college students to connect with each other to a very public platform where not just social connections but also discussions take place, often with a heavily political theme. Facebook has been described as instrumental in the facilitation of communication during the Arab Spring, providing a space for citizens to effectively communicate with each other and organise movements. Connections on Facebook are no longer of a purely social nature but have extended to political and legal as well, with it being used to promote movements all through the country. Even in India, Facebook was the most widely adopted medium, along with Twitter and Facebook, for discourse on the political future of the country during, before and after the 2014 elections. Earlier in 2011, Facebook was used intensively during the India Against Corruption movement. There were pages created, pictures and videos uploaded, comments posted by an approximate of 1.5 million people in India. In 2012, Facebook was also used to protest against the Delhi gang rape with many coming forward with their own stories of sexual assault, providing support to the victim, organising rallies and marches and protesting about the poor level of safety of women in Delhi.

Much like its content policy, Facebook exhibits a number of discrepancies in the implementation of the anonymity ban. Salman Rushdie found that his Facebook account had been suspended and when it was reinstated after he sent them proof of identity, Facebook changed his name to the name on his passport, Ahmed Rushdie instead of the name he popularly goes by. Through a series of tweets, he criticised this move by Facebook, forcing him to display his birth name. Eventually Facebook changed his name back to Salman Rushdie but not before serious questions were raised regarding Facebook’s policies. The Moroccan activist Najat Kessler’s account was also suspended as it was suspected that she was using a fake name. Facebook has also not just stopped at suspending individual user accounts but has also removed pages and groups because the creators used pseudonyms to create and operate the pages in question. This was seen in the case of Wael Ghonim who created a group which helped in mobilizing citizens in Egypt in 2011. Ghonim was a Google executive who did not want his online activism to affect his professional life and hence operated under a pseudonym. Facebook temporarily removed the group due to his pseudonymity but later reinstated it.

While Facebook performs its due diligence when it comes to some accounts, it has still done nothing about the overwhelmingly large number of obviously fake accounts, ranging from Santa Claus to Jack the Ripper. On my own Facebook friend list, there are people who have entered names of fictional characters as their own, clearly violating the real name policy. I once reported a pseudonymous account that used the real name of another person. Facebook thanked me for reporting the account but also said that I will “probably not hear back” from them. The account still exists with the same name. The redundancy of the requirement lies in the fact that Facebook does not request users to upload some form identification when they register with the site but only when they suspect them to be using a pseudonym. Since Facebook also implements its policies largely only on the basis of complaints by other users or the government, the real name policy makes many political dissidents and social activists the target of abuse on the internet.

Further, Articles 21 and 22 of the ICCPR grant all humans the right to free and peaceful assembly. As governments increasingly crack down on physical assemblies of people fighting for democracy or against legislation or conditions in a country, the internet has proved to be an extremely useful tool for facilitating this assembly without forcing people to endure the wrath of governmental authorities. A large factor which has promoted the popularity of internet gatherings is the way in which powerful opinions can be voice without the fear of immediate detection. Facebook has become the coveted online space for this kind of assembly but their policies and more particularly, faulty implementation of the policies, lead to reduced flows of communication on the site.

Of course, Facebook’s fears of cyberbullying and harassment are likely to materialise if there is absolutely no check on the identity of users.  A possible solution to the conflict between requiring real names to keep the community safe and still allowing individuals to be present on the network without the fear of identification by anybody would be to ask users to register with their own names but still allowing them to create a fictional name which would be the name that other Facebook users can see. Under this model, Facebook can also deal with the issue of safety through their system of reporting against other users. If a pseudonymous user has been reported by a substantial number of people for harassment or any other cause, then Facebook may either suspend the account or remove the content that is offensive. If the victim of harassment chooses to approach a judicial body, then Facebook may reveal the real name of the user so that due process may be followed. At the same time, users who utilise the website to present their views and participate in the online process of protest or contribute to free expression in any other way can do so without the fear of being detected or targeted.  Safety on the site can be maintained even without forcing users to reveal their real names to the world. The system that Facebook follows currently does not help curb the presence of fake accounts and neither does it promote completely free expression on the site.