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Facebook's position on real names not negotiable for dissidents

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Facebook's real-name-only approach is non-negotiable – despite claims that it puts political activists at risk, one of its senior policy execs said this morning.

Simon Axten, of Facebook's public policy team, said today that the "real name culture" was an essential element of the social networking platform. However, the policy has also been blamed for making it easy for oppressive regimes to roll up networks of dissidents who use Facebook to communicate.

Axten said Facebook was talking to human rights organisations and governmental bodies about ways activists can use the site to express political opinions without being exposed to unpleasant repercussions.

Facebook has come in for criticism over its stance during political unrest in Tunisia, and more recently Egypt. Facebook was one of the key tools used by activists to organise protests in both countries, along with Twitter and YouTube.

However, Facebook's insistence that users always identify themselves with their real names has arguably left activists – and their friends and family – exposed to identification by the authorities.

The real-name culture was one of the differentiators of Facebook when it began, said Axten, and is crucial in policing the site and ensuring the majority of users have a "safe" experience. The site is about replicating people's real world connections online, Axten argued, and because people's online identities are clearly tied to their real world ones they were less likely to indulge in behaviour online which they would balk at offline.

Which is great when it comes to stopping cyberbullying or harassment, but not so good when it comes to expounding political views that your government doesn't like.

The problem of how to give users in repressive states a way to communicate without exposing them to unpleasant retaliation is "one we're currently looking at," said Axten, but "the benefits of real-name culture outweigh the risks". On a global scale anyway.

However, he insisted, "There is a way to be an activist on Facebook."

He cited the site's Pages product, which allows people to create a page covering a particular issue. This still requires an associated account with an associated real name, but the account ID is not actually exposed to prying eyes.

Other interested parties can view the site, though they might not want to actually "like it" as this would then expose their details. And their friends' details, etc.

"People who "like" the page, their IDs are exposed, that's true," said Axten.

In the mean time, Axten said, "we are working with groups that work in the human rights space to get their thoughts on how to address this issue". Facebook was also talking to governments about the issue, he said, though he declined to say which governments the social networking site was talking to.

While the exposure of activists' IDs was one issue, Axten said they benefitted from the site's overall focus on security.

He cited the Tunisian government's attempts to inject keylogging code onto Facebook and delete activists' pages. The site's normal procedures detected this, and the attempt was quashed – before the world even became aware that turmoil was brewing in the country.

Facebook also turned on https by default in the country, something that is opt-in across the rest of the world.

Facebook's stance has been been compared to that of Google and Twitter, which have actively sought to tailor tools for the unhappy masses in North Africa.

However, in fairness to Facebook, it has never pretended to be about anything other than delivering a tailored experience for users and/or advertisers. And if it is sitting uncomfortably on the fence, to date it hasn't been caught right on the other side, as Google was in China. ®

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