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Facebook apologizes to gay community, alters identity policy

The world's largest social network says it will create a "fix" for people caught up in the company's "real-name policy."

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The move changes a core feature of Facebook, its focus on true identify for the Web. Facebook

Facebook is working on a way to verify the identities of people who prefer to go by pseudonyms rather than their birth names following pressure from gay rights activists.

In a post on Facebook on Wednesday, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox apologized to "the community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender" and the members of the LGBT community after the company mistakenly cracked down on their use of fake names.

"Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name," Cox said. "The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life."

Facebook is building better tools to authenticate "the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors," Cox said. The social network is also working to improve its customer service in an effort to prevent the abrupt dropping of accounts in these situations.

The move is a major milestone for Facebook's "real-name" policy, which until now required that anyone using the social network had to identify themselves by the same designation they had on a government-issued identification card. For most people, this isn't a problem, and for married people who want to display their married name, Facebook has already created a feature to do that.

It also isn't the first time Facebook has changed its identity policies. Earlier this year, Facebook expanded the options people can use to define their gender beyond "male" and "female." But this move changes a core feature of Facebook, its focus on true identify for the Web.

Facebook and identity

Facebook's real-name policy has always had its critics, particularly in the gay community, which has often argued that transgender people and those who take on a pseudonym for political or religious purposes are disproportionally affected by the company's rules.

The issue came to a head recently when Facebook began suspending accounts that ran afoul of its policy. Among them was Michael Williams, a gay rights activist who lives in San Francisco. He dresses in drag and goes by the pseudonym "Sister Roma" as part of a group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

In an open letter, Williams and his group explained that the real name policy can lead to harassment. People such as transgender people, who can't legally change their names, domestic violence survivors and refugees from other countries, need to be able use pseudonyms in order to communicate with friends, the group said.

"All people should feel safe using their preferred identity when speaking, online or off," the group wrote.

Politicians in recent weeks have also begun putting pressure on Facebook to change its policies.

The controversy "took us off guard," Cox said.

Rival social networks, such as Ello, saw an uptick in usage by people who disagreed with Facebook's rules.