The Facebook terms of service, to which every user must click “agree” to create an account, require that all inhabitants of Facebookistan use their real names. Accounts using pseudonyms or fake identities can be punished with suspension or deactivation. This internal governance system spans physical nations, across democracies and dictatorships.
This can be problematic for anyone in a democracy who engaged in political or social activism that their employers or potential employers might disapprove of, even when they do so on their own time.
Activists using Facebook in repressive regimes are in a position many magnitudes more difficult: They can use fake names and risk having their accounts deactivated. Or they can use their real names and risk arrest—and worse. Events in Egypt leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s fall underscored this problem. On the one hand, Egyptian activists—including, most famously, the Google executive Wael Ghonim—were able to use Facebook in late 2010 and early 2011 to create a viral human rights and anti-torture campaign that helped bring people onto the streets. On the other hand, they had to violate Facebook’s rules in order to do so: Ghonim and the others all used pseudonyms in order to avoid going to jail.
On Nov. 24, 2010, the day before a long-planned Friday of protest in Egypt, the key Facebook page for this human rights campaign hit its peak of activity as more people joined, members traded information, and organizers sent out updated instructions. Then suddenly, without warning, the page disappeared from view. Its creators received a notice from Facebook staff that they had violated terms of service that require administrators of pages to use their real identities—and furthermore, that accounts of people not using their real names, when discovered, would be shut down. Coincidentally, this all took place while the Palo Alto, Calif., Facebook headquarters were observing Thanksgiving.
The page’s creators were fortunate to know people working in Silicon Valley and for international human rights groups, who contacted Facebook executives. It was restored in less than 24 hours, but only after administrative rights for the page were handed over to Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian woman living in Washington who, unlike the activists in-country, was willing to verify her true identity with Facebook staff.
Nobody is forcing anybody who is uncomfortable with the terms of service to use Facebook. Executives point out that Internet users have choices on the Web. But for activists trying to maximize their impact, Facebook’s global dominance means that many activists can’t afford not to be on it if they want their movement to succeed, despite the risks. “If you want to organize a movement the only place to do it effectively is on Facebook, because you have to go where all the people are,” Wahab told me shortly after taking over the account.
Google’s new social network, Google Plus, started with the same governance philosophy as Facebook as far as identity is concerned, but has proven to be more flexible and open to lobbying by users. In July 2011, roughly a month after the launch, administrators began to deactivate accounts registered under fake names and pseudonyms en masse. The reaction from privacy and civil liberties groups—as well as prominent members of the technology press—was sharply critical. Google Plus members even used the platform’s own features to organize against its identity policies.
Then in November 2011, Google announced that it would create new procedures for people to use nicknames and pseudonyms, at least in cases where people have an established online identity different from the name on their government-issued ID. In January 2012, Google Plus started to roll out support for nicknames and pseudonyms, but those registering with a name other than their real-life one must be able to prove that they have been using that alternative name elsewhere either on the Web or in real life.
Managers and product developers—the barons and lords of Facebookistan, Googledom, the Apple iNation, and other platforms—have been thrust into governance roles that they are for the most part unprepared for, leading to real-world political consequences that they do not understand and have trouble anticipating. They have not yet figured out how to govern their private platforms in a way that is genuinely compatible with democratic ideals and aspirations of many of their users in the physical world.
They have also been thrust into the realm of geopolitics. The new digital sovereignties have begun to clash with conventional nation-states. A classic example was Google’s clash with the Chinese government. In March 2010, Google stopped censoring its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, and moved it out of mainland China in response to aggressive and sustained attacks launched from Chinese computer servers on Google’s Gmail service a few months before. The Chinese government denied knowledge of or connection with the attacks, denials that security experts and Western diplomats found difficult to believe, given the attacks’ military-grade sophistication. Gmail also happened to be the email service of choice for Chinese dissidents and activists.