Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie is one of the most famous (some might say infamous) writers of this generation. The author of The Satanic Verses, his work has drawn violent protests in several Muslim nations and a fatwa death sentence pronounced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. He is one of the few superstar novelists with a lifestyle to match, counting among his ex-wives Top Chef host supermodel Padma Lakshmi and more recently linked with six-foot starlet Pia Glenn. Apparently being knighted for services to literature and being a featured star onstage in U2 concerts does not buy anyone the right to violate Facebook’s real name policy, as the social network recently deactivated his account and then demanded that he return as Ahmed Rushdie, the name on his passport.

Seeking Democracy Online Could Lead to Arrest, Torture or Murder

Rushdie’s protests that he had never publicly used the name Ahmed initially fell on deaf ears, as it is a violation of Facebook’s terms of service to use anything but the name as verified on government issued identification. This policy along with similar enforcement by competitor Google+ has raised a fair number of hackles around the online world. Fully 42 nations are listed by Freedom House as being repressive, and the mildest online criticism of the monarchy in Thailand can lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Numerous bloggers have pointed out that anyone engaging in “Arab Spring”-type of activities could be opening themselves and their families to retribution by challenged governments. Over 3,500 people have lost their lives in Syrian protests alone, and the prospect clearly exists that expressing views seeking freedom and democracy online under a real, traceable name could lead to arrest, torture or murder.

Valid Reasons for Anonymity

You don’t have to be engaged in government protests to prefer to not have your real name splashed all over cyberspace. Reasons people might want to use social media anonymously can include people who are hiding from abusive spouses; who wish to discuss topics that they might be embarrassed about; corporate whistleblowers; government witnesses; or individuals who may fear for their safety if they happen to incur the wrath of the Internet Hate Machine. With Google+ already registered as an official identity agency for the US government, is the day very far off when the IRS will confront you with your own boastful social media statements of what you’ve bought and how much your last party cost during an audit?

You Can Be President under Your Non-Birth Certificate Name

The very policy of forcing people to use their ID names can be determined to be counter-productive even from the social network’s perspective. If the person born Leslie Lynch King Jr. could go on to become president of the United States under the name Gerald Ford and William Jefferson Blythe III could also inhabit the White House by the name of Bill Clinton, you might think that if generally acknowledged “known-by” names are good enough for the American electorate, they should also be just fine for social network use.

Social Network Names Becoming Formal ID

It is clear that the current trend is to have social media names be an electronic counterpart of formal ID but fortunately after a barrage of complaints, Facebook did relent and allow Rushdie to be known as Salman. However, it might be a wise strategy for Facebook and Google+ to adopt a universal policy of allowing participants to apply their commonly used names to their profiles as these social networks may find that:

Eric Bishop, Walter Willison, Annie Mae Bullock, Joyce Frankenberg, Allen Konigsberg, Carlos Ray, Thomas Mapother, Caryn Johnson and Carlos Irwin Estevez

are not quite as readily recognizable (and fan/follower magnetic) as:

Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis, Tina Turner, Jane Seymour, Woody Allen, Chuck Norris, Tom Cruise, Whoopie Goldberg and Charlie Sheen!

(Photo provided courtesy of Mariusz Kubik.)