Social Networks and Fundamental Rights: Last Developments In The Cyberspace

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Dear User, your Facebook account has been temporary deactivated”. This statement represents one of the typical Facebook (FB) notifications to users in the event of flagged content or general malfunctions. There could be a lot of reasons for receiving such a notification, of course. However, one of the most interesting situations in social media is represented by the conflict between Zuckerberg’s social network and part of its users who are used to creating accounts with pseudonyms, or “fake names”, different from their real identity.

Many social networking sites permit users to escape from their real-life identities. They have the possibility of creating a prototype of a digital persona made up of photos, videos and other content, but do this by choosing and using their own online names. Nevertheless, this is not the case with Facebook, which has been cracking down on the names people are using on the website, and forcing individuals to use the names that are on their national ID cards.

An interesting research on the topic was conducted by Gross and Acquisti as scholars at the Carnegie Mellon University in the USA. They observed the behavior of more than 4.000 university students who joined Facebook to keep in touch with colleagues. With particular interest in profile names, the research described three different possibilities when joining: 1. Real name (name appears to be real), 2. Partial Name (only a first name is given), and, 3. Fake Name (an obviously fake name). The results of the evaluation suggested that, on one hand, 89% of all names appear to be realistic, and likely the true names of the users. On the other hand, almost 8% of names seem to be obviously fake. In other words, the vast majority of Facebook users tend to provide their fully identifiable names, although they shouldn’t be obliged to do so by the site itself.

Among those affected by this “freezing effect” on their accounts was Micheal Williams, better known as Sister Roma and as a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (an LGBT organisation renowned for drag performances), who became a symbol for people whose accounts continue to be suspended or deactivated, starting a real public campaign against Facebook’s policy. Sister Roma’s story represents just one of the many cases involved in the fight against FB’s name policy. As stated, with the exception of “Fan Page” account, the use of pseudonym or “fake name” is prohibited under FB policy and regulation. However, the thought of legal perspective in this area is still unclear, mainly that of the human rights. Thus, this raises the question: to what extent does the FB’s Terms and Conditions on name satisfy the law underlying the human rights principle?

 In line with the positions taken by international organisations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, the FRA (European Human Agency for Fundamental Rights) supports the view that, despite the specific challenges posed by the increasing use of digital technologies, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights are promoted and protected online in the same way and to the same extent as in the offline world. We are mainly talking about right to privacy, freedom of expression and right to non-discrimination.

As a result, actual effort should be invested in order to improve the status quo, looking for appropriate use of digital social media and respect for diversity between people. Concretely speaking, some solutions can be proposed:

–       Need for Transparency: this represents the primary step. Rules, conditions and exceptions must be clear and respected. It goes without saying that different cases have to be considered differently as well as the similar cases must be treated equally;

–       New Terms and Conditions: rules and safeguards provided by FB should be respected by them. Actually, conditions for the appropriate use of the platform appear too vague, and inappropriate;

–       Modify the Option to Report: this proposal probably represents the most important and effective change. A very interesting solution has been put forward by Sister Roma. Infact, she thinks that a simple solution would be to remove the option to report an accound just for the use of fake names. In other words, reporting should be based on behaviour and not on identity.

If FB was not able to set this points, different social media would be ready for the competition challenge. A lot of people leaving FB are looking for a smaller, simpler and safer social network. Though there are other Facebook-alternatives, including Diaspora and Google+, but many are now flocking to Ello. There are several reasons why Ello has become the new trend social network nowdays. First of all, it is advertisement-free, secondly it takes care of its users’ privacy (no tracking activities nor selling personal information to third parties) and last but not least, freedom of expression: users can chose to represent themsleves freely using “fake names” as well as pseudonyms.

According to the facts, might we talk about a social media revolution against “Facebook’s supremacy” into the cyberspace? Let’s see next future developments.

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