Real Lame: The EFF’s reaction to Facebook’s Real Names policy


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To explain a bit of the title to normal folks, the EFF stands for the “Electronic Frontier Foundation,” a small but influential advocacy group and general proponent of digital freedom and the rights of individuals online. The Facebook Real Names Policy refers to part of Facebook’s legal terms of service which state that you must only create a Facebook profile with the identity you use in real life – usually your legal name, DOB, etc.

With that now established, the EFF is trying to get Facebook to make some exceptions to this policy, but the real problem is allowing Facebook to use your information – yes you reading this right now – your and your families personal information – for basically any purpose whatsoever. And it’s a big problem.

99% of people have no idea about this digital identity stuff because it doesn’t affect them now (well, maybe 98% after the Ashley Madison hack). Most people are not much involved in online politics and they’ve never had a legal issue with Facebook –they use it as themselves with their friends and family who do likewise. Anyway, Facebook technically and legally requires you to use your real name (of course you can create a fake profile, change your profile name, DOB, etc. and usually the Facebook police won’t come-a-callin). And again anyway, the EFF and other groups have been critical of this Facebook policy as it is clearly anti-privacy. So, now, the EFF has gathered a coalition and written a letter on behalf of people who want to use Facebook but who are or might be clear victims of discrimination… e.g. at risk of bullying, violence, and or other forms of persecution. Don’t imperil these victims with your requirement for real names Facebook! says the letter:

So the EFF and its coalition of digital human rights groups is petitioning Facebook on behalf of these special interest victims minorities to put in place a little set of exceptions to requiring their real names and identities on Facebook profiles. The EFF wants to give these special rights victims a way to use Facebook outside of their policies so they can authenticate without a real ID, use pseudonyms to protect their ID’s and so on.

The line of reasoning I’ve usually read (from the likes of online academics like Dana Boyd) is something to the tune of “Facebook is a modern utility… you have to be on Facebook like you have to have electricity, and, therefore, citizens and government groups ought to help shape and regulate Facebook policy to make it more pro-freedom, more responsive to its community of users who might, for example, not all want to use their real names or get off the network (err.. utility).

Is this a worthy cause to fight for – is it fighting for freedom for all against a terrible policy or rather, advocating for small change not real change – a set of loopholes and special exceptions for minorities? If our best and boldest groups fighting for online freedoms have been relegated to this in face of Facebook, there is zero hope right now for a policy-based approach to effect substantive privacy change. This letter isn’t radicalism. This isn’t even fighting. It’s capitulation.

Furthermore, for truly at-risk individuals using their real identities online, the answer is simple; just don’t do it. Not putting so much online tied to our real identity is a good habit for those who believe in the fundamental asymmetry of personal information online- the fact that any identity-related information online can never be truly deleted. Various networks and databases have your identities searchable information forever – and they can use it, judge it, decide on it – any element of it – at any time in the future for any reason.

We as humans are not any good at anticipating the varied future use-cases of our identity-correlated information. Often, the future will in some way take advantage of us – through impersonal economic discrimination or through more intimate bullying and discrimination – one thing the EFF misjudges is as you expose more of your identity online, every one of us falls into multiple “minority groups”- and often ones that are more subtle but often as prone to abuses as “being gay”.

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