Between writing, research, my personal coaching activity, teaching and a bit of all-important quality time, I am usually rather busy. This – and a healthy disdain for inane arguments – is why I don’t give much importance to online social networks in my life, with one exception: the mostly non-toxic LinkedIn and its focus on professional connections. I believe I even was one of its early users, so you can imagine the number of “links” I collected through the years there.
And, talking about thought experiments, just imagine my surprise last month, when accessing their website I discovered my profile had been deleted.
More precisely, “my account was restricted” because my identity wasn’t verified. According to their policy, all I had to do was to kindly send them a picture of a government-issued ID proving my full Christian name is in fact ‘Ayzad’.
Which – surprise surprise – is not. I have been working under this pen name for over fifteen years and tens of thousands of people know me by it worldwide, but of course there is no official ID to that handle, if only because there is no family name to go with it. I am often asked why I chose it and you can read the long answer in many interviews, but the gist of it is: it sounded cool in a pre-9/11 world; I originally wanted to keep my kinky identity separated from another professional life; most of all, I wanted to protect my loved ones and myself from easily foreseeable social threats. I also believe that choosing your own identity is an extremely important act of disenfranchisement from being someone’s child and establishing yourself as a person, but that’s just me. What is widely accepted, however, is for authors and content creators to be universally known by their chosen names: you can ask for details to Sting, Lady Gaga, Mark Twain, Stan Lee, Dr. Seuss, Voltaire, Natalie Portman, Vin Diesel, Bono or countless others.
So, being widely recognized as Ayzad and having several ways to prove that I am, indeed, me, I politely stated my case. That’s after searching everywhere for a support contact that wasn’t hidden – you guessed it – to those who weren’t verified members already.
Which received the following
Now, please bear with me to the end of our brief exchange, because it is going to get interesting. The point here isn’t even the auto-scripted ‘fuck off and die’ reply reserved to LinkedIn’s valued customers, but the implications of forcibly submit to their ill-advised policy (which I wasn’t even sure was there back then when I signed in). I tried to explain that…
…but I only received another, possibly even ruder, scripted reply.
In the following weeks I reached out to LinkedIn’s Italian management seeking for help or at least to discuss the case, then to the EU head office. My inquiries weren’t even acknowledged, and to this day I remain deleted from what is arguably the most important business network in the world.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue. Most social networks and even some forums have been pushing a “real names only” policy for years with the official purpose of curbing illegal behaviors on their platform, and the more concrete aim of better profiling their users for efficiently marketing their data to advertisers, who are the networks’ real customers. This might be a reasonable compromise, if it didn’t cause a number of problems.
As a matter of fact, my ordeal as an author could be filed under statistically improbable minor annoyances that are easily solved if you only appointed real human beings to support ticket management. The real issue is the personal safety of various categories of users, for making your name known can have serious – and even lethal – consequences in certain cases.
Think of political antagonists using the Internet to democratically criticize an oppressive regime; think of secular minorities living in countries with a mandatory State religion; think of social activists fighting an unjust establishment; think of people of ethnic origins operating in racist societies. Think, since we are on this website, of people discriminated against for their sexuality.
The kind of case everyone can think about is transexual persons who haven’t completed their legal transition yet, or who just don’t want to, and whose name totally does not correspond to their identity. For them, to be forced to use their original name on an official document from time to time is a hassle with reasonable cause; to be exposed with an identity they fought hard to change whenever they interact online amounts to persecution instead. But it can get much worse.
Remember the time Facebook wanted an Ethiopian gay activist to take a 15-years prison sentence just to satisfy their own real names policy? What about their more recent threat of requiring to plaster your “clear” face photo along with your every statement, like for example «I don’t like Nazi squads ambushing my neighbors, breaking into their homes, beating and harassing them». What do you think the most probable outcome would be? Or, say you are a woman questioning patriarchy in an extremist country where you can be lynched for being a witch if you express such ideas. Wouldn’t a bit more online anonymity help? I mean, this is such a no-brainer that even neo-nazis have come to endorse that!
The issue is an old one. Entities such as the EFF have been championing against mandatory real names online for ages. But what can we do to make Internet corporations reconsider their greed-fueled policies?
In my meager case, I can write this article reminding the LinkedIn powers that be how I am me, and how I was repeatedly victimized for my choice of being a kink educator in a Catholic and right-wing leaning country. If you know Italian, you are welcome to read about the time I was insulted for five straight months on national newspapers because I had accepted an invitation to give a scientific lecture about BDSM at a local university, including by a prominent politician. You can also read the parliamentary inquiry with which a senator – known for repeatedly trying to re-instate the Fascist Party in my country – leveraged another of my academic lectures, wildly misrepresented it and attempted to ban higher education institutions to ever touch upon non-normative sexualities. You will excuse me if I won’t give the details of the physical attacks my partners and I have suffered.
I declare LinkedIn willingly discriminating against me by forbidding me to access a key business and social platform unless I put my personal safety at risk, not to mention the nonsense of presenting myself with an unrecognizable commercial identity. After being presented with the details of my case, insisting on rigidly applying their real names only policy amounts to the open will to harm me – and any other person in similar situations.
I didn’t expect having to publicly denounce their behavior just to have my appeal acknowledged. But until the LinkedIn management stops denying me of what some courts have defined as a right for truly everyone, the shame is on them.
Six months and countless appeals later, LinkedIn finally reactivated my account – with the promise of never banning it again. I am now trying to find how best to thank them while keeping my fingers crossed.