Oct 20, 2014 · 3 minutes

Facebook's real-name policy has found little love. But it might find new support after the company invoked it in a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration, warning the agency that using someone's name and photos to create a fake account, even as part of an investigation, will not be tolerated.

The letter follows a BuzzFeed report revealing the DEA's use of photos taken from a suspect's phone -- including some in which she wears nothing more than a bra and panties -- to create a Facebook account used to interact with "at least one known fugitive" without her knowledge.

It also comes shortly after Facebook received sharp criticism from the LGBT community for its real-name policy, which discriminates against people who identify with a name other than the one that appears on their birth certificate, and its attempts to decide how "real" an identity is. As I wrote in September, when the backlash against the real-name policy was reaching its peak:

The backlash against this policy shows just how foolish a “real name” requirement for joining a social network really is. Besides its supposed commitment to discourage bullying and its need to give advertisers as much data as possible, Facebook has no reason to require that its users go by the name on their driver’s license instead of the one with which they’ve identified for years.

Perhaps the company could implement a policy that requires a real identity instead of a real name. Why should Facebook care if Michelle used to be called Michael, so long as Michelle is now answering to that name and using it in her daily life? When was Facebook granted the right to decide when someone’s middle name is a few characters too long for its platform? Facebook has since apologized for the discriminatory nature of its policy, but it's still having some trouble respecting the concept of a fluid identity, as shown by its decision to continue suspending accounts operated by people with a name that doesn't appear on their photo ID.

But now the same guidelines might help Facebook stop the government from taking images off someone's phone and using them to create a fake social media account. The woman in BuzzFeed's report didn't even know that racy images of her -- and images of her son -- were being posted online. She had never even created a Facebook page of her own, he says.

Considering the extent to which our identities are tangled with how we represent ourselves online, the fake account could have caused serious problems for the woman it pretended to be. Facebook's decision to speak out against the practice should be lauded, even if the DEA and other government agencies ignore the company's protestations and continue their charades.

There are ways to do this without discriminating against an entire group of people, of course. Most of the terms Facebook cites in its letter to the DEA could be easily tweaked to stop the government from impersonating someone without their knowledge or consent, and there's nothing stopping the company from introducing clauses to defend the LGBT community. It seems simple, at least when it's considered from the perspective of someone outside Facebook.

But the seeming duality of the rule, and Facebook's own inability to stop enforcing it even after releasing an apology to affected users, shows that it's hard to manage a network used by more than 1 billion people. Rules are condemned in some instances and celebrated in others. People have their own ideas of how Facebook should be run, and they rarely align with someone else's. Facebook is running a virtual continent, not a digital country, and this won't be the last time it struggles to be everything to everyone.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]