Facebook’s “real name” policy has been in the news recently due to a rash of account suspensions and threatened deletions where the account-holders are transgender and using their chosen rather than their legal names — apparently the result of targeted flagging by other users.

This, of course, raises some interesting issues and questions around privacy.

On the one hand, it’s an example of the lack of true anonymity on the Internet — if you have more than one identity, someone (or some bot) on the Internet is more than likely to find them all eventually!

…but not necessarily immediately. In Facebook’s case, the “real name” policy is supposed to provide some kind of guarantee that you “know who you’re connecting with”, but it’s only enforced when an account is flagged by another user. So, on the other hand, it’s also an example of the converse principle, that identity isn’t guaranteed on the Internet.

While the lack of guarantee is often discussed in the context of dangers to other users, such as scamming, identity theft, and stalking, the current controversy highlights some of the many other reasons people may give information online that doesn’t match their legal ID. It also raises questions about what counts as one’s “real” identity — if you want to know who you’re connecting with, do you mean you want to know their legal name, or do you mean you want to be able to match the online identity with the identity you’d recognize of someone you know in person?

The case is, of course, also a reminder of how important it is to be aware of the potential for privacy leaks, in this case through the actions of other users. While many of the activists publicly protesting Facebook’s “real name” policy are drag performers who were already out about their transgender status, the policy is also an issue for LGBT people who aren’t out, for political dissidents, stalking victims, mental health care providers, and many others… In some such cases, interacting on Facebook and other social media sites may be a very important way to make necessary connections, making for a difficult balance between an individual’s reasons for being online and the likelihood that some technical or social leak will compromise their privacy.