Monday, February 2, 2009

Facebook no friend to Native names


Facebook no friend to Native names
Nestor Ramos, Argus Leader
nramos@argusleader.com

For about a week, Robin Kills The Enemy was friendless.

Wrongly banned from the social networking Web site Facebook for registering under a false name, she was unable to get in touch with dozens of friends. In the middle of planning an upcoming trip, she suddenly lost touch with those she was to meet.

But the name she'd used was authentic, and though Facebook administrators eventually reinstated her account, some are concerned that the site is unfairly shutting off access to users with Native American surnames.

Kills The Enemy's experience has spawned a group of 1,000 Facebook users wondering why some with Native American surnames must jump through hoops and endure accusations of fraud while the hundreds of users claiming to be named "Bart Simpson" do not.

Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has become a virtual second home to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. For some, it's a primary means of communication - the exclusive way to talk to friends across the street or across the country.

That's how Kills The Enemy, 28, used the site.

Kills The Enemy lives outside Parmelee on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and works as a technology mentor and computer technician at He Dog Elementary School.

When she found her account had been deactivated, she quickly realized how many friends she no longer could reach at all. Losing access meant losing touch with college friends with whom she had worked hard to reconnect. It wasn't devastating, exactly, but it was certainly upsetting.

Site considered her real name fake

Kills The Enemy's problems started not when she joined Facebook, but when she tried to correct an error that was nagging at her.

"At first I didn't use facebook because they didn't accept my last name," Kills The Enemy said. She instead used MySpace. But the rival site attracts a younger crowd, and most of her friends were migrating to Facebook. She followed.

When she signed up for the site last summer, it wouldn't accept her real surname, so she combined it. She was Robin Killstheenemy.

But people couldn't understand her mashed-together name, and she finally e-mailed Facebook to ask for a change.

The next day, her account was deactivated.

She e-mailed the site asking for an explanation.

"Fake names are a violation of our Terms of Use. Facebook requires users to provide their full first and last names," an analyst wrote to her. Facebook would reinstate her if she provided her real name.

A matter of safety, Facebook says

A spokesman for Facebook described the site's policy.

"Facebook is based on a real name culture. This helps create an environment where people are accountable for their actions and behavior," Facebook Privacy and Public Policy spokesman Simon Axten said in an e-mail to the Argus Leader. "Fake names and false identities are actually a violation of the Terms of Use, and we disable fake accounts when they're reported to us by our users."

Axten didn't speak specifically about Kills The Enemy's account but acknowledged that errors sometimes occur.

"Of course, we may occasionally disable an account that uses a legitimate, but unusual, name," Axten said. "When this happens, we encourage users to contact us so we can investigate and hopefully reactivate. We feel that any inconvenience this extra step might add for a very small number of our users is worth it for maintaining Facebook's overall safety."

A cause is born through student

Kills The Enemy tried to navigate that process and sent e-mails to Facebook asking for reinstatement. In the meantime, a Nebraska journalism student Nancy Kelsey wrote a story for Reznetnews.org, a Native American news Web site. Kelsey also started a Facebook group called "Facebook: don't discriminate against Native surnames!!!" In just a few days, more than 1,000 users joined the cause.

"A lot of people with Native surnames had just accepted that Facebook wasn't going to accept their names," Kelsey said.

Others emerge to report same denial

After she formed the group, others said they'd had the same problem. A woman named Melissa Holds The Enemy said it took a month to get her account back.

After a few days and several e-mails, Kills The Enemy was asked to send a scan of a government identification document to Facebook. She did. On Friday, she was reinstated.

"I think that Facebook had to have no general knowledge of Native Americans or their surnames," said Facebook user Will White Eyes of Pine Ridge. His name did not trigger the site's fake name detector, but he said it's just another example of people misunderstanding his name and the culture from which it comes.

"I do get questioned about my surname," said White Eyes, 28, of Pine Ridge, in an e-mail. "I have had people ask me if that really was my name and if it is what my birth certificate had said."

Kelsey said she thought Kills The Enemy's reinstatement had more to do with her passport and persistence than with the group raising its voice in protest. But she said she plans to keep the group going.

"It's kind of an awareness thing," Kelsey said.

Whether awareness helped Kills The Enemy or not, she has her friends back - she's even made a few new ones.


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