In an apology to the LGBT community Wednesday, Facebook said it promises to make fixes to how it enforces a long-held policy requiring users to display their "real names" on personal profiles. LGBT community advocates have railed against the policy in recent weeks, saying it unfairly affects transgender users and drag queen performers.
"We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we're going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were," said Chris Cox, the company's chief product officer, in a statement on Facebook. "[W]e see through this event that there's lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who's real and who's not, and the customer service for anyone who's affected."
The development comes after LGBT community advocates met with Facebook representatives, including Cox, at the company's Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters on Wednesday to follow up on concerns raised last month that LGBT users, particularly transgender people and drag queen performers, have been targeted under the policy.
Mark Snyder, who was present at meeting and who serves a communications director at Transgender Law Center, told BuzzFeed News he welcomes the company's apology and plan as "significant progress."
"I think that Facebook is going to make sure everyone in our community is able to be their authentic self online," Snyder said when reached by phone. "We are grateful for this apology and we look forward to working with Facebook on specific solutions in the coming months. It was a very productive meeting."
Facebook has long asked users to provide various forms of identification to prove the name on their profile matches the name they use in everyday life if their accounts are reported to be violation of the policy. The social network came under fire for these requirements after hundreds of users, many of them drag queen performers, were recently locked out of their accounts after someone reported them to Facebook, which Cox said "took us off guard."
"An individual on Facebook decided to report several hundred of these accounts as fake. These reports were among the several hundred thousand fake name reports we process every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more — so we didn't notice the pattern," Cox said in the statement. In such cases, Facebook would ask for some form of ID like a piece of mail or gym membership, among others.
However, Cox didn't mention any specific steps the company would take to address the issue, other than that, "we're taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged" and "building better tools" to respond to these issues in the future.
Snyder said Facebook told advocates it plans to test specific changes behind the scenes. "It's going to be a series of bandages before the wound is healed," Snyder said. "We're working together and we will be in complete collaboration with them moving forward."
Drag queens argued the policy would disenfranchise them in their communities, where they are often known primarily by their performer names. And LGBT advocates said the policy could put transgender users at risk if they no longer identity with the names they were given at birth and use their preferred names on their Facebook profiles. Transgender users, particularly transgender youth, may not be able to provide such documents to demonstrate proof of the name they identify with if asked by Facebook, advocates said.
"Facebook's requirement that users provide a form of identification to prove their 'real names' is unfair and disproportionately impacts our already vulnerable communities," advocates — representing numerous LGBT, immigrant, and anti-violence groups across the country — said in a letter presented to Facebook at the meeting. "This policy lends itself to abuse; some people are using this tool to target and harass our communities with the intent of erasing our identities. Many people need to use a chosen name in order to feel safe or to be able to express their authentic identity online."
The advocates first met with Facebook officials on Sept. 17, which resulted in the company temporarily reinstating the hundreds of accounts that were deactivated. However, Facebook refused to budge on changing the policy at the time.
Read Cox's full statement:
Sister Roma, a prominent drag queen performer in San Francisco and member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who also attended the meeting, applauded Facebook's changes when reached by BuzzFeed News.
"They opened the meeting with an apology," Roma said. "They never intended our community to suffer or be included in the way that it has been happening and they are working on high cool, high-level technical solutions to make sure they change the process when accounts are flagged. It's amazing."
However, Roma was careful not to declare victory just yet: "We’re on our way to doing it. This is the first huge step to make this happen. There's still lots of technical background work they have to do."
Roma, or Michael Williams, said he will soon change his profile to make Sister Roma the primary name displayed on the account.
San Francisco City Supervisor David Campos, who has been part of the negotiations in the meetings with LGBT advocates at Facebook, said he commends the company and Cox for the "heartfelt" and "genuine" apology for how the policy was handled.
"The acknowledgment that they made a mistake meant a great deal to all of us," Campos told BuzzFeed News. "They agreed with what we were saying all along — that we want people to be their real authentic selves on Facebook, but that doesn't necessarily mean using your legal identity."
Campos said he sees the social network's move as a victory.
"This is a huge victory," he said. "Not only for the community, but also for Facebook, and everyone involved."
The superviser plans to hold a victory rally with supporters and the LGBT community Thursday on the steps of San Francisco City Hall at noon local time.