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Does Facebook's 'real name' policy really protect its users?

Facebook's 'real name' policy requires users to register with the name given on federal IDs or credit cards, a rule that opponents say could harm user safety, even as supporters argue that it will help.

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In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters near the office for the company's User Operations Safety Team in Menlo Park, Calif.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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Those who have changed their names socially but not legally may soon have an easier time on Facebook. 

The social network announced Sunsay that in December it will roll out an improved "real name policy." The current policy requires Facebook users to go by their “authentic name” on the social network, verified by a government-issued ID or credit card. Other Facebook users can report accounts that they feel have fake names, causing the accused users to be locked out of their account. 

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In an Oct. 5 letter, opponents to the policy, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and the Electric Frontier Foundation, wrote to Facebook on behalf of transgender people “whose legal names don’t accord with their gender identify,” people who use a pseudonym “in order to protect themselves from physical violence,” and people who don’t fit Facebook’s “arbitrary standards of ‘real names’” such as native Americans and other ethnic minorities. 

To counter rising criticism, Facebook’s new policy will include two changes. First, users will be able to explain their name choice if it does not correspond to their identification documents. “This should help our Community Operations team better understand the situation,” Alex Schultz, Facebook’s Vice President of Growth, said in an announcement. “It will also help us better understand the reasons why people can’t currently confirm their name, informing potential changes we make in the future.” 

Secondly, those who report accounts with "fake names" will have to provide context to defend their complaint. Opponents of the policy have argued that users sometimes abuse the reporting process.

Those who oppose the current policy have used the #MyNameIs campaign to voice their continued frustration and to organize protests and rallies across the country.

“Even though Facebook claims it has improved its policy, users continue to get kicked off the site, losing access to support groups, an essential political platform, and all their contacts and content,” the campaign wrote on a signature petition for the Nameless Coalition.

“I’ve been Sister Roma for 27 years,” a drag queen and well-known LGBT personality told Ars Technica last year. “If you ask anyone my name, in or out of drag, they will tell you it’s Roma. Is it the name on my driver’s license? No. But it is my name.” Roma was locked out of her account, and forced to change her profile name to her legal name Michael Williams.

But both sides of the argument insist they are acting in the best interests of users who have been bullied and discriminated against.   

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“We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with,” explains Facebook on their website. “This helps keep our community safe.”

In July Facebook’s CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg defended the policy, saying, “We know people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they’re using their real names.” A Pew Research study from 2014 supports Zuckerberg’s claim, proving that “half of those who have experienced online harassment did not know the person involved in their most recent incident.”