Last June, Facebook locked the account of “Happy Addis”, an Ethiopian LGBT activist who runs Facebook groups for gay Ethiopians. The reason? His Facebook profile does not list his real name. But Happy Addis had good reason not to want his real name associated with his Facebook groups. For one thing, Ethiopia’s criminal code punishes consensual adult same-sex relations with up to 15 years in prison, not to mention public hostility from anti-gay groups.

Graphic illustration by Access, a member of the Nameless Coalition calling for Facebook to change its real name policy. © 2015 Access

Human Rights Watch joined a letter to Facebook this week calling on the company to correct the “authentic identity” (commonly known as “real name”) policy that caused the exclusion of Happy Addis and numerous other LGBT people, human rights activists, minority communities and journalists from using the site. Facebook allows users to create profiles with the names they use “in real life”, but requires users to submit proof of identification to access their account if another individual flags them has having a “fake name.” This process is riddled with shortcomings: legal names on accepted IDs do not always match users’ real life names or protective pseudonyms; legal names may not meet Facebook’s standards for “real names”; and the process of submitting IDs is often conducted insecurely, without any knowledge of what Facebook does with ID data. 

Facebook's policy is also more likely to disproportionately harm those that are already under threat.  The people most likely to be targeted by abusive flagging for real-name violations are at-risk minorities or activists criticizing powerful government actors, not users posting politically innocuous cat pictures under the name "Hello Kitty" or "Daffy Duck."

Under the real name policy, Facebook has prevented users from accessing their accounts, effectively cutting them off from communities and limiting their freedom of expression. Our proposed policy changes outline ways for Facebook to support the safety and expressive rights of users, and do not preclude a reporting system to treat malicious and criminal behavior.

Facebook has become a critical vehicle for individuals to associate and exchange ideas with others, particularly in countries with low levels of internet penetration, limited media freedom, or repressive laws. But it should live up to its promise of inclusion by doing more to accommodate its different populations, and fixing its real name policy is a crucial step to better protect its most vulnerable users. If you agree, please make your voice heard too by signing our petition