Africa / Europe

Germany nixes Facebook’s dangerous ‘real names’ policy

Germany regulator Johannes Caspar (Photo courtesy of Berliner-Zeitung.de)

Germany regulator Johannes Caspar (Photo courtesy of Berliner-Zeitung.de)

Government regulators in Germany have ruled against Facebook’s policy of demanding that account holders use their real names — a policy that jeopardizes the lives of LGBTI people in homophobic countries.

As The Guardian reported:

“The Hamburg data protection authority said on Tuesday that the site could not force users to give official ID such as a passport or identity card, nor could it unilaterally change their chosen names to their ‘real’ names on the site.

“Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, said … that the requirement to use a real name violates the rights, enshrined in German law, to use a pseudonym, while requests for digital copies of an official photo ID also contradict the passport and ID card law.”

A more serious problem faces LGBTI Facebook users in anti-gay countries, where public exposure often can lead to violence, prosecution and/or imprisonment. Here are two examples of problems caused by the Facebook policy, as cited in this blog on July 17:

  • Ethiopian activist HappyAddis, who runs some of the most popular online groups for gay Ethiopians, including 1000-member Zega Matters, had his Facebook account blocked because he was not using his legal name. After many people protested, Facebook restored his account [July 16], apparently without explanation.
  • Junior (June) Mayema (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

    Junior (June) Mayema (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

    Junior (June) Mayema left the Democratic Republic of Congo to flee from homophobia and transphobia, but now that he’s in the United States, Facebook forces him to use a legal name that he dislikes and that leaves him exposed to potential harassment.

Often anti-LGBTI harassment triggers the problem for sexual minorities. Their opponents report them for violating the Facebook rule and the company then demands that they reveal their real names.

The Facebook policy has also been challenged by drag queens, trans people and Native Americans who have been required to adopt a government-recognized name “even when that name represents centuries of cultural tradition, as it does for Native Americans, or belonging in an adopted family for marginalized people, as it does for drag queens,” said online activist Nadia Kayyali at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In the online #MyNameIs campaign, “a coalition of drag and other performers, transgender people, Native Americans, immigrants, domestic violence survivors, and our allies” seek “reformation of Facebook’s dangerous and discriminatory ‘real names’ policy.”

Specifically, this group urges Facebook to:

  • Remove an online tool that allows users to report people who use “fake names”: “Facebook has other tools for reporting bad and dangerous activities, including harassment, impersonating someone else, or making unwanted sexual advances.  The ‘fake name’ reporting option punishes users’ identities and is obsolete!
  • Stop asking for IDs: “Many users do not have government issued identification, credit cards, or a piece of paper that reflects their true authentic identity.  Facebook can find a better way to authenticate that users are real and accountable people (not robots or people looking to do harm), such as their ‘trusted contacts’ system which already allows users to access accounts if they forget their password.
  • Create an appeals process: “there should be an easy way to get in touch with Facebook to tell your story and find a solution if things fall through the cracks.  We want to be able to talk to real people, not receive canned responses.”

Transgender Europe welcomed the German ruling, stating:

Social media is a powerful tool to connect, mobilize and let trans people express their true selves around the world. The daily online interaction can be an invaluable lifeline in particular for young trans people, those living in rural areas or otherwise isolated from peer trans folks. Many have to rely on anonymity on the internet to stay safe in their jobs, schools, communities and families.

An official piece of identification matching name, gender identity or gender expression offers little for cross-dressers and people with a non-binary gender identity as rigid rules for adapting ID documents are based on two exclusive options “female” or “male”. In Europe today 22 states request sterilisation in legal gender recognition, de facto barring many trans people from getting such documents.

Richard Kohler (Photo courtesy of LGBT-ep.eu)

Richard Kohler, senior policy officer of Transgender Europe (Photo courtesy of LGBT-ep.eu)

“Yesterday’s decision is very encouraging as it strengthens the right to self-determination and privacy in an increasingly interconnected world,” said  TGEU Senior Policy Officer Richard Köhler.

“The right to self-determination includes the choice of name to present with. It is an important aspect of each person’s right to private life and dignity.”

“Requesting trans people to reveal official names as printed on ID documents is cruel and ignorant of the fact that many states don’t allow for a change of ID at all, or require sterilisation, a mental health diagnosis and/ or divorce for it.”

Köhler continues: “Facebook should immediately stop its “real name” policy that pushes trans and gender variant people out of the net. The use of a pseudonym is not the same as identity fraud and should not be treated as such.”

“As a de facto monopoly Facebook should live up to its own community standards and engage actively against trolls, harassment and hate speech to make the Internet a safer and more equal place for everyone.”

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