Facebook holds that its requirement that people use their authentic identities in their accounts helps keep the social networking site safe from terrorists, cyberbullies and other criminals from hiding behind their profiles.
But in a letter to the company on Monday, a large group of civil liberties organizations from across the world, have said that Facebook's system "disregards the circumstances of users in non-western countries, exposes its users to danger, disrespects the identities of its users, and curtails free speech."
Users are not required to submit a proof of identity to register an account, but if another user, well-intentioned or otherwise, reports the account holder for using a fake name, that is when problems begin, because then Facebook demands proof of identity, according to the groups.
"This is where things get difficult for many users who lack IDs or documentation featuring the name they’d prefer on the service," wrote Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, in a blog post.
The groups say they represent transgender and gender variant people whose legal names are not in accordance with their gender identity, people who use pseudonyms or modified names to protect themselves from repressive governments, and others who are harassed on the basis of their gender, sexuality, religion or political views.
The groups are also standing up for users who were "silenced" by people taking advantage of the option on the social networking site to report users for fake names.
Facebook could not be immediately reached for comment on the letter.
The company has in the past loosened some of the rules for verification, starting with the clarification that by authentic name it did not necessarily mean the legal name of the person. After protests last year from drag queens and the larger LGBT community, who found their accounts deleted after they were flagged by an user as fake, the company clarified that its authentic name policy had never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal names.
The company also said it had made it easier for users to verify their authentic name, allowing them to "confirm their name with things like a piece of mail, a magazine subscription, or a library card that include their authentic name," rather than by producing a legal document.
The groups, which include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Bytes for All in Pakistan, believe Facebook should remove the real-name policy altogether, but until then should relax its real-name rules to allow pseudonyms and non-legal names in such circumstances as when the using of an everyday name would put the user in danger.
The organizations are particularly concerned about how Facebook handles abuse reports from other users that could result in the take down of accounts. "The types of ID that Facebook asks for in the 'report abuse' process, whether issued by a government or private entity, do not necessarily feature a person’s nickname or 'real life' name—especially for transgender people and others who modify their names to protect themselves from harm," according to the letter. IDs issued by private institutions are often linked to a person’s legal identity and government-issued identification number, it added.