Wednesday 16 November 2011

Facebook vs Rushdie; Salman Rushdie runs afoul of web’s real-name police

Rushdie: My name is Salman Facebook: No, your name is Ahmed
Author claims victory in clash with the social network over his name
NEW YORK TIMES, 15 Nov 2011

SAN FRANCISCO: The world knows him as Salman Rushdie. But Facebook deemed it fit to deactivate the famous author's account, demanded proof of identity and turned him into Ahmed Rushdie, which is the name in his passport.

He never used his first name Ahmed, Rushdie pointed out as he hit Twitter on Monday morning with a litany of exasperated posts. Would Facebook have turned J. Edgar Hoover into John Hoover, he scoffed, or F. Scott Fitzgerald into Francis Fitzgerald?

'Where are you hiding, Mark?' he demanded of Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive. 'Come out here and give me back my name!'

The Twitterverse took up his cause. Within two hours, Rushdie, 64, gleefully declared victory: 'Facebook has buckled! I'm Salman Rushdie again. I feel SO much better. An identity crisis at my age is no fun.'

Rushdie's predicament points to one of the trickiest notions about life in the digital age: Are you who you say you are online? Whose business is it - and what for? As the Internet becomes the place for all kinds of transactions, from buying shoes to overthrowing despots, an increasingly vital debate is emerging over how people represent and reveal themselves on the websites they visit.

One side envisions a system in which you use a sort of digital passport, bearing your real name and issued by a company like Facebook, to travel across the Internet. Another side believes in the right to don different hats - and sometimes, masks - so you can consume and express what you want, without fear of offline repercussions.

The argument over pseudonyms - known online as the 'nym wars' - goes to the heart of how the Internet might be organised in the future.

Major Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have a valuable stake in this debate - and, in some cases, vastly different corporate philosophies on the issue that signal their own ambitions.

Facebook insists on what it calls authentic identity, or real names. And it is becoming a de facto passport vendor of sorts, allowing its users to sign into seven million other sites and applications with their Facebook user names and passwords.

Google's social network, Google+, likewise wants real names used, and it has frozen the accounts of some perceived offenders. But Google has indicated more recently that it will eventually allow some use of aliases.

Twitter, by sharp contrast, allows the use of pseudonyms by people as diverse as WikiLeaks supporters using the name @FakeSarahPalin, among many others. It does consider deceitful impersonation to be grounds for suspension.

The debate over identity has material consequences. Data that is tied to real people is valuable for businesses and the government authorities alike.

Forrester Research recently estimated that companies spent US$2 billion (S$2.58 billion) a year for personal data, as Internet users leave what the company calls 'an exponentially growing digital footprint'.

And then there are the political consequences. Activists across the Arab world and in Britain have learnt this year that social media sites can be effective in mobilising popular uprisings, but using a real name on those sites can lead the authorities right to an activist's door.

'The real risk to the world is if information technology pivots to a completely authentic identity for everyone,' said Mr Joichi Ito, head of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'In the US, maybe you don't mind. If every kid in Syria, every time they used the Internet, their identity was visible, they would be dead.'

Facebook has consistently argued for real identity on the grounds that it promotes more civil conversations. But real identity is also good for its business, particularly as it moves into brokering transactions for things such as airline tickets.

Twitter, on the other hand, has vigorously defended the use of pseudonyms, bucking demands most recently from British government officials who pressed for a real names policy in the aftermath of the civil unrest earlier this year.

Rushdie, who once lived incognito because of death threats, has had to fight for his online name on Twitter as well.

An impostor was using the Twitter handle @SalmanRushdie this year, and Rushdie sought help to reclaim it.

Now his page bears Twitter's blue 'Verified Account' checkmark and quotes Popeye: 'I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam.'

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