On Facebook’s “real name” issue & online spaces

or because they feel like it, and that is totally fine…

So the story dominating my Facebook newsfeed the past days is concerning Facebook’s move to delete performers and Drag Queen’s profiles because they violate the terms of service; specifically, the profiles are not registered under their legal name. Of course this is nothing new, I knew when I started using Facebook that there is this “real name” policy, and I’ve always considered it problematic. Overall, however, it has never been enforced… I have changed my name on Facebook a few times to nonsensical things just for fun, and see many doing the same thing… In such instances there is little to no reaction, because the main way Facebook is moderated is through other users reporting any violations of the terms of service; this means that in the end, the prevailing issues existing in society will reflect on how a place like Facebook is regulated.

In this specific case, it has been argued that there are other reasons why Facebook is cracking down on something they rarely crack down on… dead presidents (I mean $$$.) There is a push for any performer to switch to pages instead of profiles, as those provide more incentive for said performers to pay for ads as they aren’t able to reach their audience more easily. Makes total sense to me, because if I go through my friends list I see a bunch of profiles from NGOs who have no clue what a Facebook page is, organisations who haven’t bothered to switch, random pages about random topics, etc. where perhaps their is no such financial interest (yet)… But performers live of the exposure they get.

So overall, lets just blame this on capitalism? Yes? No? Perhaps…

The question is very much: what are online spaces? Are they public spaces? They function pretty much like them, right? Or private spaces? Is being on Facebook the equivalent of going into a bar, where owners have a strict policy on all sorts of things and reserve the right to deny someone entrance? Or is it more like a city with multiple spaces, and places, and parks… How do we define these spaces? Or more importantly, who gets to define these spaces…

While the real name debate in the English speaking online world rages on, which recently Google admitting that it is a mistake, it might be good to look at another place. In South-Korea, it is impossible to be anonymous online, and when I say impossible, I mean impossible. The country has instated a “real name” system through legislation that requires any website that has more than a predetermined number of users/members to require those signing up to supply their real name and national identity number; foreigners in such situations can still sign up, but need to send in a scan of their passport or other ID. So when I look at Facebook, yes I think their real name policy “to create a safe environment” is nonsense, but it is part of a wider issue: anonymity online, and how do we handle this? The discussion around freedom of speech is as old as freedom of speech itself, but online you rely on a provider for access, for spaces to engage in, hosting, email, etc. making the situation quite different than speaking your mind in a bar… In South Korea, the real name system has led to some real issues in terms of censorship online, in other places it hasn’t gone that far yet. The online space has become a government regulated space.

On the other side of the world, in 2006 a German court was asked to rule on a Denial of Service attack on the website of Lufthansa, instigated by a group of activists. In this case the court ruled that a Denial of Service attack, which has lead to jail sentences in the USA, is tantamount to an “online demonstration”; thus, like the online space is treated like a public space, and the Luftansa website like a store along the street that can be blocked by a picket line.

Facebook is one side of a scale, it being the “regulated” space where real names are required, with terms of service that are quite strict; applied through a strange form of crowd-policing, except for those instances where it has a clear stake. This online space is i.e. a business, and it is an open question whether it should be treated as a public space. Also, if we see it as a public space, how do we regulate things here? Should they be, and if so to what extent? Right now, national laws in countries impact how the internet is seen, but the citizens (or netizens as they are referred to in some places) are those who live there, and they live not in a democratic world, but in one controlled by companies mostly, and by governments that in a lot of cases impact online spaces inhabited by a lot of people that have never voted for them in the first place.


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