My friend and IT, IP and Media Law researcher specialising in privacy and autonomy Paul Bernal
has a very good blog
on what seems at first glance to be a crazy move from Facebook in their ongoing war on pseudonyms.
Facebook has, from multiple independent reports, started asking friends to snitch on friends not using their real names on Facebook:
Now I know when it comes to privacy storms we're all getting a little jaded.
In a world where anything and everything is reported to threaten our privacy there comes a point when we are forced to don blinkers and carry on regardless, hoping it will all turn out right in the wash.
There are now so many privacy worries that we'd end up living a pretty futile existence if we tried to avoid each and every threat.
But this move, which Facebook are reported to be calling a 'limited test' (source
- in German), is an outright assault on an ancient British right to go by any name we choose; with the exception, of course, of official documentation.
Yes, our right to go under a pseudonym survived numerous wars and even the terror-driven clampdown on our freedom over the last decade. It's still perfectly legal to assume any name you choose, so long as you don't want a bank account - for that you'll need to submit a deed poll.
But the right to connect with your friends without using your full real name is more than an amorphous civil right useful only to protesters, authors and actresses (etc, etc).
It's a vital tool for those escaping tricky domestic situations. I know one case of a lady hounded by another convinced that she'd had an affair with her husband. Another is in the process of escaping an abusive marriage. Both set up new profiles under pseudonyms.
Should I snitch on "Nurse Helen" (pseudonym changed to protect the innocent!) if asked?
Are these people really doing anything wrong?
Well yes, they're breaking Facebook's terms of service, points out Paul
. But does that really
Facebook is desperate to squeeze every ounce of juice out the "value proposition" of holding a rich data set on all our lives.
But with big data comes big responsibility; and pseudonymous users are still valuable to Facebook.
They still see and click on Facebook ads.
They still leave digital footprints that Facebook can track to work out whether they prefer chicken or beef, drive a Ford or Ferrari, read James Patterson or James Joyce; so Facebook is still able to [attempt to] select the most relevant adverts for them.
In fact I can only think of two things Facebook can't do easily for pseudonymous users: (1) link to their credit score; and (2) prevent "review fraud", where users create multiple accounts to unfairly influence product reviews.
Of these, (1) causes me concern anyway. It puts an immense amount of power into the hands of a small number of credit scoring companies.
Imagine being prevented from using a Facebook app or receiving a discount voucher because your credit rating is not high enough. We shouldn't encourage discrimination based on the output of a rough algorithm designed to assess our ability to manage debt.
And for (2), yes it's useful to have a system to prevent online vote rigging. But banning pseudonyms isn't the only method. It isn't even a fool-proof method.
And it certainly shouldn't usurp the right of a hounded woman to enjoy social media free from the attentions of a slightly deranged individual.