For most of the last decade, one of my side projects has been FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, a website that helps British adults to change their name for free and without a solicitor. Here’s a little known fact: as a British citizen, you have the right to be known by virtually any name you like, and for most people the simplest way to change it is to write out a deed poll: basically a one-person contract on which you promise that you’re serious about adopting your new name and you’re not committing fraud or anything.
Over that time, I’ve helped thousands of people to change their names. I don’t know exactly how many because I don’t keep any logs, but I’ve always gotten plenty of email from people about the project. Contact spiked in 2013 after the Guardian ran an article about it, but I still correspond with two or three people in a typical week.
These people have lots of questions that come up time and time again, and if I had more free time I’d maintain an FAQ of them or something. In any case, a common one is people asking for advice when their high street bank, almost invariably either Nationwide or Santander, disputes the legitimacy of a “home made” deed poll and refuses to accept it.
When such people contact me, I advise them of a number of solutions and workarounds. Going to a different branch can work (training at these high street banks is internally inconsistent, I guess?). Getting your government-issued identity documents sorted and then threatening to move your account elsewhere can sometimes work. For applicants willing to spend a little money, paying a solicitor a couple of quid to be one of your witnesses can work. I often don’t hear back from people who email me about these banks: maybe they find success by one of these routes, or maybe they give up and go down one an unnecessarily-expensive avenue.
But one thing I always put on the table is the possibility of fighting. I provide a playbook of strategies to try to demonstrate to their troublemaking bank that the bank is in the wrong, along with all of the appropriate legal citations. Recent years put a new tool in the box: the GDPR/DPA2018, which contains clauses prohibiting companies from knowingly retaining incorrect personal data about an individual. I’ve been itching for a chance to use these new weapons… and over this last month, I finally had the opportunity.
I was recently contacted by a student (who, as you might expect, has more free time than they do spare money!) who was having trouble with Santander refusing to accept their deed poll. They were willing to go all-out to prove their bank wrong. So I gave them the toolbox and they worked through it and… Santander caved!
Not only have Santander accepted that they were wrong in the case of this student, but they’ve also committed to retraining their staff. Oh, and they’ve paid compensation to the student who emailed me.
Even from my position on the sidelines, I couldn’t help but cheer at this news, and not just because I’ll hopefully have fewer queries to deal with.
When Claire and I changed our surnames to the letter Q, six and a quarter years ago, I was pretty sure that we were the only “Q”s in the world. Ah Q‘s name is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet; Stacey Q is a stage name that she doesn’t use outside of her work (she uses Swain in general); Suzi Q‘s “Q” is short for Quatro (perhaps popularised because of the similarly-named song, which came out when she was aged 7; Maggie Q‘s “Q” is short for Quigley (she finds that her full name is almost impossible for her fans in East Asia to pronounce); and both Q and Q are fictional. We were reasonably sure that we were the only two people in the world with our surname, and that was fine by us.
After Claire and I split up, in 2009, we both kept our new names. In my case, the name felt like it was “mine”, and represented me better than my birth name anyway. Plus, I’d really gotten to enjoy having a full name that’s only four letters long: when my poly-tribe-mates Ruth and JTA (each of whom have almost 30 letters in their full names!) were filling out mortgage application forms recently, I was able to get through the pages I had to fill significantly faster than either of them. There are perks to a short name.
I can’t say why Claire kept her new name, but I’m guessing that some of our reasons overlap. I’m also guessing that laziness played a part in her decision: it took her many months to finally get around to telling everybody she’d changed her name the first time around! And while I’ve tried to make it possible to change your name easily when I launchedfreedeedpoll.org.uk, there’s still at least a little letter-writing involved.
Now, though, it looks like I may soon become the only Q in the world:
Personally, I thought that after she passed her PhD she’d have even more reason to be called “Q”. I mean: “Dr. Q”: how cool is that? It sounds like a Bond villain or something. But on the other hand: if she wants to downgrade to an everyday name like “Carter” then, well, I guess that’s up to her. I shan’t blame them for not opting to hyphenate, though: “Carter-Q” sounds like a brand of ear bud.
Seriously, though: good for them. If those crazy kids feel that marriage is for them, then I wish them the best of luck. And let’s face it, we’re approaching a bit of a lull in this run of all-of-our-friends-getting-married, so it’ll be nice to have an excuse for yet another wedding and a fabulous party (I’m jumping to conclusions and assuming that they’re going to invite me, especially after this blog post!).
In other name-related news, look out for me in the Money section of tomorrow’s Guardian, where I’ll be talking about deeds poll, as part of their series of articles on scammy websites. I always knew that it was only a matter of time before my photo appeared in a national newspaper: I guess I should just be thankful that it’s for something I’ve done right, rather than for something I’ve done wrong!
On this day in 2011 I launched FreeDeedPoll.org.uk, a site that tries to make it as easy as possible for British citizens to change their names (and have those new names accepted as being legally-recognised).
The thing that people often don’t realise is that, as a British citizen, you have the right to be known by pretty-much any name you like. You don’t need a solicitor to change your name. You don’t even need any money. You can just start using it. A deed poll, which you can make all by yourself for free, is just a piece of paper on which you write a promise that you consider your “new” name to be your primary moniker, and not your “old” one.
Over the last year, almost 3,000 deed polls have been generated using the site, including ones for my partner Ruth (who opted to keep her maiden name as a middle name after she got married) and my friend Jen (who now has among the coolest – and most hippyish – collection of names I’ve ever seen). As to how many of the other thousands of deed polls have actually been used, I simply don’t know: as a commitment to privacy, no logs are kept of the names people enter onto the form, so for all I know there are 2,000 all the same and 998 “blank” submissions.
I’ve become a minor Internet guru on the topic of name changes, it turns out. The other week, a transgendered stranger contacted me via the “chat to Dan” link, to ask about the legal aspects of their (slightly more-complex than most) case for changing their name. And because I’m a fan of helping people, I did a little research with them in order to find the answers. I felt the need to keep stressing that IANAL, but I’m pretty sure I managed to help, anyway.
Most recently, a few days ago, a stranger emailed me asking for advice on the legal issues in changing the names of his children. After doing the necessary research, I’m now thinking of expanding the site to make this easier, too.
A strange feeling for me has been that this project is, and has been for the last year, “finished”. I’m not very good at finishing technical projects: one of the biggest and most important things that I’ve worked on – Three Rings – is now in its tenth year and shows no sign of being “finished”. So it feels odd to have developed a website that’s complete, done and dusted, and probably won’t require more than a modicum of maintenance over the coming decades to keep it running.
It’s good, though, that I’ve been able to help people with something about which far too many are underinformed. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, and I like it.
tl;dr: [skip to the end] I’m closing my Facebook account. I’ve got some suggestions at the bottom of this post about how you might like to keep in touch with me in future, if you previously liked to do so via Facebook.
A little over three weeks ago, I was banned from Facebook for having a fake name. This surprised me, because I was using my real name – it’s an unusual name, but it’s mine. I was interested to discover that Claire, who shares my name, hadn’t been similarly banned, so it seems that this wasn’t part of some “sweep” for people with one-letter names, but instead was probably the result of somebody (some stranger, I’d like to hope) clicking the “Report this as a fake name” link on my profile.
There are many, many things about this that are alarming, but the biggest is the “block first; ask questions later” attitude. I wasn’t once emailed to warn me that I would be banned. Hell: I wasn’t even emailed to tell me that I had been banned. It took until I tried to log in before I found out at all.
I don’t make much use of Facebook, really. I cross-post my blog posts there, and I keep Pidgin signed in to Facebook Chat in case anybody’s looking for me. Oh, and I stalk people from my past, but that’s just about the only thing I do on it that everybody does on it. I don’t really wallpost, I avoid internal messages (replying to them, where possible, by email), and I certainly don’t play fucking FarmVille.
So what’s the problem? It’s not like I’d be missing anything if I barely use it anyway? The problem is that my account was still there, it’s just that I didn’t have access to it.
That meant that people still invited me to things and sent me messages. My friends are smart enough to know that I won’t see anything they write on their wall, but they assume that if they update the information of a party they’ve Facebook-invited me to that I’ll get it. For example, I was recently at a fabulous party at Gareth and Penny‘s which they organised mostly via Facebook. They’d be forgiven for assuming that when they sent a message to “the guests” – a list that included me – that I would get that message: but no – it fell silently away into Facebook’s black hole.
Following this discovery, here’s how I spent the next three weeks:
Facebook gave me a form to fill in when I tried to log in, explaining their “Real Names” policy and asking me to fill in my real name and explain “what I use Facebook for” (“Ignoring friends and stalking exes, same as everybody else,” I explained, “Why; what do YOU use Facebook for?”).
It then asked me to scan and upload some government-issued photographic ID, which I did. It still wouldn’t let me log in, but it promised that somebody would look at my ID soon (and then destroy their copy) and re-enable my account.
I periodically tried to log in over the next few days, without success: I was to wait, I was told.
After about a week, I received an email from “Rachel” at Facebook, who explained the “Real Names” policy and asked me to provide my REAL name, and a scan of some photographic ID. I replied to explain that I’d already done this once, but complied with her request anyway.
Another few days passed, and I still hadn’t heard anything, so I filled in the Contact Forms in the Help section of Facebook, asking to have my request processed by an actual human being. I provided by ID yet again.
Another few days later, I received an email from “Aoife” at Facebook. It was pretty-much exactly the same as the earlier email from Rachel. I replied to explain that we’d been through this already. I supplied another pile of photo ID, and a few sarcastic comments.
Another couple of days passed, so I dug up the postal addresses of Facebook’s HQ, and Mark Zuckerberg‘s new Palo Alto house (he’s tried to keep it secret, but the Internet is pretty good at this kind of detective work), and sent each of them a letter explaining my predicament.
Yet more days passed, and we reached the third week of my ban. I replied to Rachel and Aoife, asking how long this was likely to take.
Finally, a little over three weeks after the ban was first put in place, it was lifted. I received an email from Aoife:
Thanks for verifying your identity. Note that we permanently deleted your attached ID from our servers.
After investigating this further, it looks like we suspended your account by mistake. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. You should now be able to log in. If you have any issues getting back into your account, please let me know.
So now, I’m back on Facebook, and I’ve learned something: having a Facebook account that you can’t log in to is worse than not having a Facebook account at all. If I didn’t have one at all, at least people would know that they couldn’t contact me that way. In my situation, Facebook were effectively lying to my friends: telling them “Yeah, sure: we’ll pass on your message to Dan!” and then not doing so. It’s a little bit like digital identity theft, and it’s at least a little alarming.
I’ve learned something else, too: Facebook can’t be trusted to handle this kind of situation properly. Anybody could end up in my situation. Those of you with unusual (real) names, or unusual-looking pseudonyms, or who use fake names on Facebook (and I know that there are at least a dozen of you on my friends list)… or just those of you whose name looks a little bit off to a Facebook employee… you’re all at risk of this kind of lockout.
Me? I was a little pissed off, but it wasn’t the end of the world. But I know people who use Facebook’s “single sign-on” authentication systems to log in to other services. I know people who do some or all of their business through Facebook. Increasingly, I’ve seen people store their telephone or email address books primarily on Facebook. What do you do when you lose access to this and can’t get it back? When there’s nowhere to appeal?
And that’s how I came to my third lesson: I can’t rely on Facebook not to make this kind of fuck-up again. No explanation was given as to how their “mistake” was made, so I can’t trust that whatever human or automated system was at fault won’t just do the same damn dumb thing tomorrow to me or to somebody I know. And personally, I don’t like Facebook to seize control of my account and to pretend to be me. I come full circle to my first realisation – that it would be better not to have a Facebook account at all than to have one that I can’t access – and realise that because that’s liable to happen again at any time, that I shouldn’t have a Facebook account.
So, I’m ditching Facebook.
None of this pansy “deactivation” shit, either – do you know what that actually does, by the way? It just hides your wall and stops new people from friending you: it still keeps all of your information, because it’s basically a scam to try to keep your data while making you think you’ve left. No, I’m talking about the real “permanent deletion” deal.
I’m going to hang around for a few days to make sure I’ve harvested everybody’s email addresses and pushing this post to my wall and whatnot, and then I’m gone.
If you’re among those folks who aren’t sure how to function outside of Facebook, but still want to keep in touch with me, here’s what you need to know:
I like email! Remember email? I’ve always preferred it to Facebook messages anyway – that’s why I always reply to you by email, where possible. My email address is pretty obvious – it’s my first name @ this domain name – but if that’s too hard for you, just fill in this form to get in touch with me. If you’re up for some security while you’re at it, why not encrypt your email to me.
I like instant messaging! I may not be on Facebook Messenger any more, but we can still chat! The best way to get me is on Google Talk, but there are plenty of other options too. Here’s how you do it. Or if you’re really lazy, just check at the top of my blog for the little green light and click “Chat to Dan”.
I like blogging! Want to know what’s going on in my life? I never updated my “wall” anyway except to link to blog posts – you might as well just come look at my blog! Too much like work? Follow my RSS feed and get updated when I post to my blog, or keep an eye on my Twitter, which usually gets links to my new blog posts almost as soon as they go up.
I like sharing!I’m not on Google Reader any more, but when I find fun things on the Internet that I enjoyed reading, I put them in this RSS feed. Subscribe and see what I’ve been looking at online, or just look at “Dan is Reading…” in the right-hand column of my blog.
And I’m not opposed to social networking! I’ve just reached the end of my patience with Facebook, that’s all. Look me up on Google+ and I’ll see you over there (They also have a “Real Names” policy, which is still a bit of a problem, but I’m sending them a pre-emptive “Don’t ban me, bro!” email now)!
Ironically, the only Facebook accounts I’ll have now are the once which do have fake names. Funny how they’re the ones that never seem to get banned.
My Name Is Me. I choose to participate on much of the Internet by my full name. I say “full name”, rather than “real name”, because the term “real name” is full of loaded connotations. For example, I (still) periodically have people insist that Dan Q isn’t my real name, because it’s not the name I was born with. It doesn’t matter to them that it’s the name I’m known by to pretty much everybody (except my mother, who still calls me Daniel). It doesn’t matter that it’s the name on my passport or driving license. To them, it’s not “real” because to them, real names are either those acquired by birth or marriage, and somehow nothing else is valid. And that’s without even looking at the number of times I’ve been discriminated against because my name is “too short” for ill-designed computer systems.
That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is that sites like Facebook and – in the news recently on this very topic – Google+ demand that full “real” names are used on the profiles of their site users. If you don’t use the name that appears on your government-issued documentation (if you have such a thing), then your accounts on these sites are liable to be closed. By the way: the same is theoretically true of your Google Profile, too, so even if you’re not on the Google+ bandwagon and you, say, use a nickname in your Google Profile, your account is still at risk.
Now, I can see the point that these policies are trying to make. In fact, there was a time that I’d have naively agreed with them. They’re trying to make the Internet a safer, more-accountable place. But in actual fact, there’s a real risk that they’ll make the Internet a lot more-treacherous for some people. I shan’t bother listing folks who are affected, because others have done it far more-thoroughly than I ever could.
But I shall point you in the direction of my.nameis.me, where you can read a little more about these issues. Thanks.
I talk a lot. If you don’t want to listen to me ramble, and you’re just looking for the free deed poll generator, click here.
After Claire and I changed our names back in 2007, I actually took the time to do a little research into deeds poll (or, more-specifically in this case, deeds of change of name). It turns out that we did it the wrong way. We paid a company to do all of the paperwork for us, and – while it wasn’t terribly expensive – but it wasn’t free, and “free” is exactly how much it ought to cost.
In the intervening years I’ve helped several friends to change their names via deeds poll (yes, “deeds poll” is the correct plural), and I’ve learned more and more about why the whole process should be simpler and cheaper than many people would have you believe.
A deed poll, by definition, is nothing more than a promise signed by one person (it’s not even a contract – it’s got little more weight than a New Year’s resolution), on paper which has straight edges. That’s what the word “poll” actually means: that the paper has straight edges. Why? Because back then, a contract would typically be cut into two on an irregular line, so that when the two halves came together it would be clear that they were originally part of the same document – an anti-forgery measure. A deed poll, because it’s signed only by one person, doesn’t need to be separated like this, and so it has straight edges.
That means that’s it’s perfectly legitimate for you to write, on the back of a napkin, “I have given up my name [former name] and have adopted for all purposes the name [new name]. Signed as a deed on [date] as [former name] and [new name]. Witnessed by [witnesses signature(s)].”
The problem comes when you send that napkin off to the Inland Revenue, or the DVLA, or the Passport Office, and they send it back and laugh. You see, it helps a hell of a lot if your deed poll looks sort-of official. You ought to put some work into making it look nice, because that makes a world of difference when you ask people to believe it. That’s not to say that they won’t laugh at you anyway – the Passport Office certainly laughed at me – but at least they’ll accept your name change if it has an air of authority and is covered with all of the most-relevant legalese.
Behind the dozens of scam artists who’ll charge you £10, £20, £30, or even more to produce you an “official” deed poll (tip: there’s no such thing), there are one or two “free” services, too. But even the best of these has problems: the site is riddled with advertisements, the document isn’t produced instantly, you’re limited in how many deed polls you can generate, and – perhaps worst of all – you have to give them your email address in order to get the password to open the documents they give you. What gives?
So I’ve made my own. It’s completely free to use and it’s available at freedeedpoll.org.uk: so what are you waiting for – go and change your name! Oh, and it’s also open-source, so if you want to see how it works (or even make your own version), you can.
Why? Well: I don’t like feeling like I’ve been scammed out of money, so if I can help just one person change their name for free who might otherwise have been conned into paying for something that they didn’t need: well, then I’ve won. So change your name or help your friends and family to, on me, or just download my code and learn a little bit about Ruby, Sinatra, and Prawn (the technologies that power the site). What’re you waiting for?