Authorities in Germany have banned Facebook from insisting on the use of real names and allowed users to refuse to provide official identification.
The Hamburg data authority made the ruling after a woman complained that she had been prevented from using a pseudonym on Facebook. The social network allegedly blocked her account, asked her for identification and changed her username without consulting her first, writes Emma Woollacott for Forbes.
German woman beats Facebook’s real-name policy
Victory for the woman means that she will be allowed to use a fake name in order to keep her business and private life separate. Authorities rejected Facebook’s argument that it only has to abide by Irish data protection laws due to the fact that its European headquarters is in Ireland. Irish authorities approved the real-names policy in December 2011.
This legal argument was also questioned by the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten last year. It ruled that Google would be subject to local laws in each country where it had economic activities.
“Facebook cannot again argue that only Irish data protection law would be applicable,” Hamburg’s commissioner for data protection, Johannes Caspar, told Reuters. “Anyone who stands on our pitch also has to play our game.”
Under German law, pseudonyms are specifically allowed, and companies are forbidden from demanding official identification. Such a policy violates Germany’s Data Protection Act.
Policy criticized by various groups
The German case is not the first time that Facebook’s real-name policy has come in for criticism. Activists point out that victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable individuals may be put at risk.
Members of the LGBT community have also criticized the policy, as have Native Americans, who are often named after animals or natural features that are identified as fakes by Facebook.
Facebook has tried to reduce the impact of its policy by stating that it will allow non-legal names which users are known by in real life. The social network has defended its policy, claiming that it “protects people’s privacy and safety by ensuring people know who they’re sharing and connecting with.”
It also benefits the company by ensuring that the data mined from users is more reliable, increasing its worth to advertisers. As a result, it seems unlikely that Facebook will end the policy unless it is forced to by the courts.