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Would Anonymity Help Activists On Facebook? Maybe Not

There is an interesting debate about whether Facebook, which theoretically insists on a real-name policy, should allow activists to use pseudonyms on the site. In 2010, the Egyptian We Are All Khaled Said group was deactivated by Facebook because the administrators had registered it under pseudonymous accounts.

On February 10, Senator Dick Durbin wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging the company to do more to protect activists' rights. "The Egyptian and Tunisian governments have reportedly used Facebook to monitor activists, which is surely aided by Facebook's refusal to allow activists to use pseudonyms," he wrote. (Read the whole letter here.)

Facebook has long defined itself, unlike other social networks, by requiring people to use their real names. In practice, it doesn't quite work like that. There are probably millions of pseudonymous accounts, either spoof celebrities or just people not using their real names (I can think of plenty of examples in my own friend list.) In most cases, for an account to be disabled, someone must report the account, by clicking the "report/block this person" link. Facebook might then ask that person to prove they really are Mr. Mickey Mouse.

Except as Jillian York at the Berkman Center has pointed out in her work on this issue, Facebook doesn't seem too bothered about the Mr. Mickey Mouses of the world, but does seem more active in blocking the accounts of activists (presumably because Facebook gets a critical mass of "report abuse" notifications).

I'm all for corporate responsibility, and for companies joining organizations like the Global Network Initiativeto ensure they respect global rights norms, and certainly think Facebook should look into ways to better protect its activists, such as providing default HTTPS, but I'm not sure selective pseudonyms are the way forward. Couple of quick thoughts:

* If Facebook had a special "activist's status," where it officially allowed some accounts to be pseudonymous, where does it draw the line? I would assume that as long as they're not advocating violence or hate speech, then any activist would be entitled to such protection -- that would mean Middle East democracy fighters, but also anti-gay groups or guys from the English Defense League. Who gets to choose which activists are acceptable and which aren't? One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and all that. Should Facebook, a private company with obligations primarily to its shareholders, give extra security to groups it might find noxious, for instance Holocaust deniers?

* Connected to the first point is the logistics. How would one prove they are an activist to get a special status? It's not like activists can fax off their membership cards even if they had them, especially with a move toward more leaderless, loose groupings. It would seem to be incredibly open for abuse. Surely "activist's status" could be abused by nonactivists -- hackers, spammers, etc -- who for whatever reason would want to be anonymous and gain the extra protection. And what would a special status mean? Perhaps it would mean that no one would be able to report them -- again an impunity that would be easy to abuse by the wrong person. A special pseudonym status seems like even more of a minefield, especially if Facebook struggles to maintain consistency with its current policy.

* Even if activists did have anonymity on Facebook, that could lull many into a false sense of security, encourage complacency, and actually put people at more risk. Even anonymous activists can be tracked by enterprising secret police. More important is that platforms like Facebook communicate clearly with activists and explain and educate them about the risks involved. Then the activists can choose what tools they want to use -- there are plenty of other platforms where activists can be anonymous, for example Twitter.

Regardless, Facebook isn't going to change its real-name policy: it is part of the company's culture and, along with all the talk of accountability, it's vital for advertisers. Facebook has also said it's talking to human rights organizations to find ways for activists to use the site without repercussions.

But while it looks like tidying up and putting more resources into its deactivation process is definitely needed, I'm not sure providing anonymity is necessarily the way forward. More broadly, this issue -- the power of Western corporations as intermediary censors and the responsibilities that come with providing a platform -- is becoming more and more acute. For example, a YouTube account, Freedom Messenger 20, which posted videos from the Iranian opposition, was taken down for supposed copyright violation -- in reality, it was probably taken down after a bunch of pro-regime types claimed copyright infringement.

I would be very interested in hearing other people's thoughts on this issue, in particular how Facebook could better protect activists using the site.