The Facebook No-Fly List: Who Controls Names?
Last week, news outlets (including our friends at NameCandy) reported on the travails of Indiana attorney Mark Zuckerberg, who has the misfortune to share his name with the founder of Facebook. Attorney Zuckerberg has been around for decades longer than the Facebook whippersnapper, but now finds his right to his own name challenged.
Two years ago, he tried to create a Facebook account but was rejected because of his name. "I had to send them copies of my driver's license, birth certificate, and Indianapolis Bar Association license just to get them to believe that I exist and to allow me to set up my page," he reports. Despite jumping through all those hoops, last week he found his account shut down on grounds of "fraudulent identity."
As I thought about this story, it struck me that there's a bigger issue buried in it: the fact that Facebook treats certain names as special to begin with. Looking closer, it's clear that the company maintains a kind of "no-fly list" of names deemed suspicious. People who bear those names are required to produce legal documentation to defend their own identities.
Try to create a Facebook account under the name, say, Barack Obama and you'll get this error message:
On the face of it, this is a very reasonable quality-control measure. It's all too easy to picture Facebook becoming a junkyard of "Lady Gagas" and "Justin Biebers."
The company's rules state that "your full first and last name must be listed" and "impersonating anyone or anything is not permitted." Yet it's apparent that those rules are lightly enforced. Facebook is in fact crammed with blatantly fake users, from Ihaté Yew and Abcde Edcba to Detective-Sherlock Holmes to dozens of Anne Hathaways with profile pictures of that actress. And in that sea of identities real, satirical and fraudulent floats a small set of privileged names that Facebook safeguards.
The Facebook no-fly list isn't made public, but it's not hard to tell when a name is on it. Type a protected name like Tom Cruise into Facebook's people search and you'll find endless imposters using slight variations on the name -- Cruise Tom, Tom's Cruise, or creative punctuation like Tom Cruìse. I tried a bunch of high-profile names to try spot a pattern of which are and aren't protected, and came to the conclusion that there's not much pattern at all. Judge for yourself:
|Facebook Says You May Be Named:||But Not:|
|Ben Stiller||Adam Sandler|
|Rupert Murdoch||Warren Buffett|
|Paul McCartney||Mick Jagger|
|Sandra Bullock||Drew Barrymore|
|Martin Scorcese||Steven Spielberg|
|Brad Paisley||Carrie Underwood|
|Jessica Alba||Eva Longoria|
|Carmelo Anthony||LeBron James|
|Mike Huckabee||Mitt Romney|
|Justin Bieber||Miley Cyrus|
Whoa, hold on! So anybody can use the name Justin Bieber? Yep, they can and they do, in droves:
The Bieber example alone rules out the possibility that Facebook protects names based on the likelihood of fakes. The commonness of the name in the broader population isn't the key either -- there are more Carrie Underwoods and Adam Sandlers out there than Brad Paisleys and Ben Stillers. Nor does category or influence of fame seem to be the issue. It's worth noting that rival tech executives don't all get the name protection that Facebook's founder does. Even while Facebook was shutting down the painstakingly verified account of a real Mark Zuckerberg, it continued to host dozens of users actively impersonating the leaders of companies like Microsoft and Google.
Historically, there are precedents for protected name classes. France, for instance, has longstanding laws barring common citizens from adopting surnames associated with the old aristocracy, thus preserving the aristocrats' hereditary privileged status. Today, we see private companies taking the role of name protectors, with celebrities playing the part of the aristocrats. Except the definition of the privileged class seems opaque, and even capricious.
Yes, there is a difference between a legal prohibition and difficulty getting a Facebook page. But the more powerful and ubiquitous any social media company gets, the more onerous the burden on name-challenged people becomes. Realistically, Facebook has broad power over personal identities, and it's deciding which names you are and aren't allowed to have. (Real people with unconventional names have run afoul of its name filters too.)
What happens in the long term, as new celebrities pop up overnight? Any of us could wake up tomorrow and find that, thanks to a reality tv star or basketball phenom, we suddenly have to defend our rights to our own names. I wonder what it would take to get Facebook to protect Laura Wattenberg for me?