Who Should Be Unmasked on the Internet?

Facebook has always wanted to be the online chronicle of its members’ lives, a digital space where friendships are maintained and strengthened, births and birthday parties announced and chronicled, articles and consumer brands recommended, and the demographic profiles of its members steadily refined. Because of that, the information that Facebook users provide in their profiles has to be their real information. There are plenty of places on the Internet that still allow for anonymity and self-invention, but Facebook is not one of them.

Last week Facebook found itself apologizing for enforcing that policy. The company’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, wrote a blog post apologizing to “drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and [the] extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.” Facebook had suspended the accounts in question after it was made aware that those accounts were attached not to the users’ legal names but adopted names such as Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess. The response from the drag and transgender community was fierce—chosen names are, many argued, their actual names, more so than the names on their drivers’ licenses, and in some cases those new names gave a measure of protection against virtual and real-world harassment and attacks.

According to Cox, the problem arose because of a single user who took it upon him or herself to report several hundred fake accounts, temporarily overwhelming the company’s verification process. The website Daily Dot, which has covered the controversy exhaustively, has found evidence that that user—who, ironically, has remained publicly nameless—has an online presence laced with homophobic comments. Cox, in his post, implied that the affected drag queen and transgender accounts would be promptly unflagged: “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life.”

Cox nonetheless defended the policy of requiring real names, even if that didn’t mean the name on a birth certificate: “The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad.”

The real-name/drag-queen dust-up is one more example of the tension between accountability and anonymity online—a tension that forms the backdrop of the debate over search engine results and the “right to be forgotten.” A new proposal from the cyberlaw scholar Danielle Citron in her new book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, suggests how sites dedicated to protecting its users’ identities could compromise, as well, and mitigate the excesses of anonymity. As Citron puts it, social networks could treat anonymity as “a privilege that can be lost.” When a user violates a site’s terms-of-service agreement by writing or passing along cruel, offensive, or harassing content, administrators, rather than banning the user from the site, could simply require that they reveal their identity, making them stand behind their words. It wouldn’t take away the platform, just the mask. (Facebook recently put in place this policy for group pages that don’t disclose users’ identities.)

The policy wouldn’t make much difference in the really hard cases—a dissident in an authoritarian regime whose anonymity is the only thing protecting him from arrest and incarceration. But applied carefully to those who are using anonymity to indulge sadistic tendencies that they’d be ashamed to have their names attached to, it’s a promising idea.