Tensions rise over Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy

Posted at 9:08 PM, Dec 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-16 21:08:40-05

SAN FRANCISCO (CNNMoney) — It was less than five minutes before the shouting started.

During a raw and confrontational public panel, Facebook employees faced-off against activists fighting to change the company’s name policy. There were arguments, walkouts, tangents and tears during the hour and a half event.

Almost 80 people came out to the San Francisco LGBT Community Center Tuesday Night to meet with Facebook representatives, including vice president of global operations Justin Osofsky and product manager Todd Gage.

It was a rare opportunity to talk face-to-face with the people who make decisions about the company’s controversial Authentic Names policy, which requires user profiles to be a “commonly known” name.

Critics say the policy unfairly discriminates against people who don’t go by their given name, like drag performers or people who are transgender. If a name is reported as “fake,” users must provide evidence of their chosen name like an ID, piece of mail or membership card. If they can’t prove their claim, their accounts are shut off.

“It hurts me a great deal to hear people in the room say they’ve been denied access to a service, a service I’ve dedicated a decade of my life to,” said Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of growth. “My god we’re trying.”

On Tuesday morning, Facebook announced updates to the process by which people report members for having “fake” names. It was the culmination of six months of work, including collaboration with outside activist groups. Facebook also promised to assign its most experienced customer service representatives to the issue.

The new features are being tested with 1% of U.S. users. People who are reported will now have a seven-day grace period to respond and can cite special circumstances, like being an ethnic minority or a victim of abuse.

Artist Jokie X Wilson said he was was forced to update his profile to his legal name and still hasn’t been able to switch it back. One man yelled that he wanted “compensation” from Facebook. A woman cried as she talked about losing her job and having to chose which of her identities to use on Facebook.

“I’ve always had two authentic selves,” she said.”I can use Facebook to connect with coworkers and potential job leads … or I use Facebook to connect to the friends I’ve made on the Internet who know my authentic self.”

Multiple audience members said the entire system was flawed because it was based on the assumption that people have only one everyday identity.

Facebook has no plans to get rid of the requirement, which it says prevents bulling and spam from fake accounts.

“It’s not the policy that we’re screwing up, it’s the execution,” said Schultz. “The way that we’re asking you for details, the way that we’re handling operation support is letting you down.”

Facebook brought five customer service representatives to the event, but said there were no plans to add any phone support. The company serves over a billion people around the world, and says phone customer service is just not scalable.

By the end of the event, tempers had calmed somewhat and activists thanked Facebook employees for coming out.

“We aren’t an easy community and we’re not meant to be,” said Alex U. Inn, from the MyNameIs Coalition. “I respect that you hung in there with us and hope you do the right thing going forward.”

She closed by asking the audience to like the MyNameIs page on Facebook.