In 2011, Facebook took down the profile of writer Salman Rushdie due to doubts over whether he was using his "real" name.
The author, whose full name is Ahmed Salman Rushdie, reported on Twitter that he had to send a photo of his passport page to the social networking site, which then restored his account under the name Ahmed Rushdie.
"They have reactivated my FB page as 'Ahmed Rushdie,' in spite of the world knowing me as Salman. Morons,” he tweeted at the time.
Facebook eventually sorted the issue out with Rushdie, but didn't fix the larger problems caused by its real-name policies. Earlier this year it emerged that the social networking service taken down profiles of some Native Americans due to questions about whether their names were authentic.
The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been following this issue, reports that Facebook's policy has also ensnared people using traditional Irish and Scottish names, transgender people, and even one of its own employees.
Facebook doesn't require people to sign up with the names on their birth certificates, as long as the profiles carry the names people use "in real life."
But that policy causes problems when Facebook tries to verify that people's profile names match their "real-life" names. Facebook tends to do so when other users flag concerns about a profile.
People like Rushdie, whose real-life names vary (even if only slightly) from the ones on their documents, traditionally had a hard time proving to Facebook that their profiles should remain on the site.
That's because Facebook has fairly stringent standards about the evidence it accepts to verify a profile name. The company accepts government issued IDs as proof, and also accepts some forms of non-government issued IDs (like magazine subscription labels), but advocates point out that these documents often don't have nicknames on them.
A group of 75 advocates, including the EFF, recently highlighted the problems with Facebook's approach. "The types of ID that Facebook asks for ... do not necessarily feature a person’s nickname or 'real life' name -- especially for transgender people and others who modify their names to protect themselves from harm," the groups said in an Oct. 5 letter to the company.
Today, Facebook responded by saying that it will try to make it easier for users to confirm that their profile name is valid.
"Historically, when people were prompted to confirm their Facebook profile name, there was no opportunity to give additional details or context on their unique situation. We now plan to test a new process that will let people provide more information about their circumstances," Facebook's Alex Schultz wrote in a letter to advocates who recently criticized the company's policies.
Schultz also said the company will start requiring people who flag a profile as having a fake name will now have to provide additional information about why they're doing so.
Schultz said the company will start testing the new systems in December.
Access Now, which was among the groups to criticize Facebook's former approach, cheered the company's move.
"Changes that promotes human rights are welcome,” Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manger, said in a statement. "While not all recommendations in the coalition letter were met, Access Now is pleased to see these positive steps and we look forward to engaging further with Facebook on the full recommendations.”