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Facebook's ban on pseudonyms is censorship

Business & GovernmentFeatures
by Staff Writer
, 09 Mar 2011Features

Chinese blogger and activist Michael Anti was banned from Facebook for using an alias - but in an environment built on fiction, isn't the social network's insistence on using 'real names' just censorship in disguise?

Anti, an outspoken critic of censorship in his native China, complains that his Facebook account was cancelled out of the blue in January. He was told by the company in an email that Facebook operates a strict policy banning the use of pseudonyms. If he wished to continue on the site, it said, he would have to use the name issued on his government ID.

All of which leaves us slightly baffled, because among our meagre list of Facebook friends, we number a profile 'written' by - and populated with pictures of - a friend's thumb, dressed in miniaturised national costumes and photographed in various exotic locations around the world. There's also at least one cat. None of these accounts, we suspect, bear the names of those who are actually behind them - but so far, none of them has been spirited away by Facebook's admins.

It appears they're not the only non-persons on Facebook, either. Chinese dissident Anti - real name Zhao Jing - recently discovered while he is banned from using the social network under his pseudonym, there appears to be nothing to prevent the pet pooch of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, from having its own page.

"I'm really, really angry. I can't function using my Chinese name," he said. "Today, I found out that Zuckerberg's dog has a Facebook account. My journalistic work and academic work is more real than a dog."

Anti set up his Facebook account in 2007, and says the ban has cut him off from a network of more than 1,000 academic and professional contacts.

The Facebook ban isn't the first time the activist has locked horns with a tech giant. In 2005, Anti's blog on Windows Live Spaces was deleted by Microsoft after alleged pressure from Chinese authorities.

Facebook claims that its "real name culture" encourages accountability and trust - but we can't help thinking that any environment that presents human relationships as a numbers game, which rifles through users' personal details for demographic trinkets to flog to marketeers, and reduces all human emotion to a single word - 'Like' - appears ill-placed to lecture on the bonds of trust and kindness that characterise genuine friendship.

Facebook is fiction. It's a place where people can escape, to create an online image that may or may not resemble them - but it's never more than that: representation rather than truth.

With a global membership of 500 million personas, though, Facebook is a phenomenom that's hard to ignore - making it all the more important that this kind of arbitrary censorship is unmasked, complete with its whiff of commercial or political interference.

We live in the age of WikiLeaks - an era in which, for whistle-blowers and those who need to speak their mind, anonymity is every bit as valuable as identity. Whether you call yourself Batman or Bruce Wayne appears largely irrelevant - it's what you say that counts.

Pseudonyms offer Anti and others - many of whom write from places where the risk of being revealed may jeopardise their very safety - the anonymity they require to speak to the world.

And if it's good enough for Zuckerberg's dog, isn't it good enough for everyone?

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