Imagine if Mark Twain was with us today and wanted to open an account on Facebook. Twain would likely get an e-mail from Facebook citing its "real name policy" of not accepting a pseudonym as the primary name on his account.
How unreasonable, you might think. Everyone knows that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens's professional name. But by the rules of Facebook, Twain instead would have to be Samuel Clemens.
This is the situation confronting Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist whose real government-recorded name is Zhao Jing. He has been writing as Michael Anti for more than a decade. It was his byline in The New York Times, for whom he worked as a reporter/researcher in its Beijing bureau. It was the name he used when applying for a Nieman Fellowship; that's how we knew him during his year at Harvard in 2007-2008.
Anti has become a popular online commentator in China. Last January, his Facebook account was abruptly cancelled. Anti refused to change his account to reflect his birth name, Zhao Jing, and Facebook removed his account as well as his links with more than 1,000 contacts he had made since 2007.
This is not the first time Anti's blog has been censored. In December 2005, he lost his site on Microsoft's hosting service, MSN Spaces, after a post commenting on the Chinese government's removal of top editors at the Beijing News, and a highly unusual strike by journalists at the paper in protest of the dismissals, according to The New York Times. He said he received no warning from Microsoft and, as a result, did not have a chance to back up his files.
The Committee to Protect Journalists protested Microsoft's actions as being complicit with "China's growing attempt to stifle the free flow of news and opinion."
A Microsoft spokesperson said the company had been told by the Chinese authorities that the blog had violated local laws and they requested its removal. Still, as Rebecca MacKinnon, a well-known blogger who once ran CNN's Beijing bureau, noted, Anti's blog was taken down by MSN, and not blocked by the Chinese government. She described Anti as one of China's edgiest journalistic bloggers, often pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable.
After his blog was shut down, Anti started an online publishing venture called Far & Wide Journal with a focus on freedom of the press. He established his account as Michael Anti and used it for three years before Facebook challenged him.
Anti told Tini Tran of the Associated Press that "there is a long tradition in China for writers and journalists to take pen names, partly as protection from retaliation by authorities. If Facebook requires the use of real names, that could potentially put Chinese citizens in danger."
AP reported that Facebook said it does not comment on individual accounts, but added that it believes a "real name culture" leads to more accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use Facebook. "This viewpoint has been developed by our own research and in consultation with a number of safety and child protection experts."
But, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society wrote, the ramifications of the policy are "subtle and end up a long way from what Facebook claims when it says it leads to a safer online environment. When dealing with the pseudonymity and celebrity of journalists working in dangerous conditions, it can lead to quite the opposite."
Michael Anti's is an important voice in China that needs to have a continuing presence among his readers and sources. The clampdown in this case is not the initiative of the Chinese government. Instead, he has been censored by an American institution with a policy that lacks the flexibility to provide a courageous Chinese blogger with a journalistic safety net.
This post originally appeared on Nieman Watchdog.