Why Facebook is amending its controversial "Real Name" policy

Since its creation in 2004 Facebook has always insisted that users sign up with their real name to ensure the network remained safe and reliable. This week Facebook has revealed they are amending this for the first time. But why has the policy been so controversial? And why has Facebook decided to make this change now?

Why does the policy exist?

There are many reasons that the real name policy was created. In the early days it was more a mechanism to ensure that users could trust the information that they were seeing and feel as though it was a safe place. Facebook have cited the existence of up to 83 million 'fake' accounts to emphasise the need for authenticity. 

However, since then other motives have come to the fore. These have ranged from the need to protect against terrorists and scammers, to also reducing the volume of cyber bullying through the platform. 

Why is it controversial? 

As the platform continues to grow its duty to be a part in civil rights and movements has become more apparent. The real name policy in principle isn't being criticised, but its inflexibility is. 

Human rights groups have begun to express concern that the practice is actually marginilising some of the most vulnerable groups of people. A few examples are: 

  • Transgender people - many of whom use different names from their birth one to protect their identity and family
  • Victims of stalking - using aliases to protect themselves from harassment
  • LGBT - similar to the above, where aliases are used to protect identity - particularly in countries where being so can be dangerous
  • Non-"western" names - at times the platform has also discriminated against names it has assumed are not real. This has been affecting the Native American community, as well as many foreigners

Recently, in a letter signed by civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook was criticised for "exposing its users to danger and disrespecting the identities of its users".

Now, Facebook is finally reacting to these concerns. 

What is Facebook changing?

In a blog post Facebook have announced a few changes to improve the process on all sides. Facebook have no intention of abandoning the policy of authentic names - but they are taking steps to have more of a discussion with users when there is a dispute. The main two changes are: 

Requiring people to provide context when reporting

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The new version of the names reporting process requires people to provide additional information about why they are reporting a name. In the past, people were able to simply report a “fake name” but now they will be required to go through several new steps that provide more specifics about the report. This additional context will help avoid spamming or abusive reporting.

A new way for people to describe their special circumstance when verifying their name

Users who are now flagged as using a false name will have 7 days to login and amend. They will also, more importantly, be able to explain specific circumstances. This will allow them to reach personalised support easily - and Facebook can then look into their comments and make a decision. It might not be perfect in every case, but it's a start. 

As Facebook notes - these changes are just the start. They are slowly rolling this out, and hope that they can make more steps in 2016 to make the experience more compassionate while not compromising on the safety of all its users.  "We want to create the best experience that we can for everyone," Facebook says, "and we will continue to make improvements until everyone can use the name that their friends and family know them by."