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How Facebook Could Better Help Activists

I just wanted to highlight a couple of great follow-ups from my post earlier this week about the security problems activists can face using Facebook. In short, I argued that giving more anonymity, or officially allowing people to use pseudonyms, is fraught with problems. Read the original post here.

The first response is from Jillian York at Harvard's Berkman Center, who has written a lot about this issue.

York makes clear that she has never argued for a special status for activists on Facebook. But, as she says, "there are a few other fundamental issues at stake regarding the platform, which I believe would go far in solving a large number of the issues activists face with the real name policy":

Activists-who often have easy enemies-and semi-famous people are the targets of the policy. Why? Facebook’s TOS are largely peer-enforced, which means that if I don’t like you, all I have to do is report you-or bully a bunch of other people into reporting you-as using a fake name. Your account is then sent into Facebook’s review; sometimes nothing happens, other times, your account is deactivated. The problem here is that your average Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse (see below) is a relative unknown, with no enemies to report him or her, which means that he/she is allowed to remain in the system while folks like Michael Anti-using his widely-known English pen name on the system instead of his lesser-known legal Chinese name-are kicked out.


That said, part of the reason I’ve advocated for allowing pseudonyms is that I think the benefit outweighs the harm. Others have argued that opening up Facebook to the anonymous masses makes it less safe; the truth is, the pseudonymous masses are already there. This doesn’t change reality, it only changes policy.

And as Facebook increasingly becomes a part of all of our daily lives, it becomes more and more difficult to tell activists to just “take their content elsewhere.” While it’s true that there are a number of other platforms on which activists can operate anonymously, Facebook is simply where the network is.

The second response is from Jochai Ben-Avie, a policy analyst at Access Now, an NGO focused on promoting digital freedom. (Ben-Avie sent these comments via email):

While I think you raise a number of good point about the difficulties of Facebook giving someone a special “activist” status -- indeed, whose activism does Facebook support is a real question -- this is something that Facebook needs to work out in collaboration with international free speech and human rights groups. Rather than focus on by what criteria someone should be considered to be an activist, I thought I would throw out a few thoughts on what practices/policies Facebook could implement to better protect activists who use their platform.

While being allowed to use a pseudonym would be one possible benefit of having “activist status” on Facebook, these users should also have additional security features attached to their account such as requiring multifactor authentication (e.g., RSA tokens, SMS, a phone call), more stringent password guidelines to make passwords stronger (e.g., greater than 12 characters, cannot use any words or names, must contain numbers, symbols, and upper and lower case letters), etc. We’re not suggesting that users with this special activist status be immune from abuse reports, but rather that they be placed into a different triage class with an aim to expedite appeals regarding unauthorized account access and wrongful account deactivation and content removal.

In our recommendations to the Global Network Initiative last year, we also suggested that corporations should allow users to make a third party or person a “guardian” of their account. The guardian would have the legal authority to deactivate and reactivate an account in the event of unauthorized access. This would remove the burden of authentication from firms after an unauthorized account intrusion or deactivation and facilitate the prompt disabling of an account to limit unauthorized access. Protocols to securely establish and properly authenticate these guardians would also be needed to make this strategy feasible. To add on this, Facebook could potentially also implement a policy where an activist could use a pseudonym on their site, provided that they were on the “activist list” and had a guardian on their account who was using their real name.

While developing strong human rights divisions should be a long-term goal of all corporations, even if such divisions existed today, it would be a near impossible task for them to monitor and respond to the needs of activists in all of the conflict areas in the world where human rights are at risk. As such, Access supports Danny O’Brien’s (from CPJ) proposal, to create a human rights advisory group, comprised of a select number of leading NGOs, civil society organizations, academic institutions, and prominent individual activists to assist and advise Facebook (and other sites for that matter) about how to make their platforms more “activist friendly.”