Germany: Facebook Must Permit Pseudonyms

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, at a 2009 event in Germany

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Burda Media

Facebook’s attitude to user privacy has ruffled feathers in many countries—but particularly in Germany. After recent tussles over facial recognition and user data rights, the social networking website has now been savaged yet again by the country’s officials. The issue this time? Facebook’s refusal to allow users to adopt pseudonyms—described as an “unacceptable” violation of German data protections laws.

In an order issued yesterday, the regional data protection office in the state of Schleswig Holstein demanded Facebook “immediately” change its policy forcing users to use their real names. This requirement, the regulator said, was in violation of a German law that serves to protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression on the Internet. The law in question, section 13 (6) of the Telemedia Act, states:

The service provider must enable the use of telemedia and payment for them to occur anonymously or via a pseudonym where this is technically possible and reasonable. The recipient of the service is to be informed about this possibility.

Facebook said in a statement that this law is “not applicable to Facebook and also infringes higher-ranking European law.” The company added that even if the German law was applicable (which it says it is not), it wouldn’t depart from its “real name culture” because doing so would “not be reasonable for Facebook.” The policy is necessary, Facebook says, because it is part of a “mission of trust and security.”

The German data protection officials are highly disgruntled over the issue, writing that “It is unacceptable that a U.S. portal like Facebook violates German data protection law unopposed and with no prospect of an end.”

According to an Associated Press report, Facebook now has two weeks to respond to the order. If it fails, it could get hit with a fine of up to €50,000 ($66,000)—a sum that the AP notes is “peanuts for a multinational company, but nevertheless a symbolic blow that could also lead to a tougher stance from other German and European privacy regulators.”

Facebook has faced numerous controversies in Europe in recent years, many of them stemming from Germany and its strong position on matters related to privacy and data protection. After Germany threatened legal action over its facial recognition software in 2011, for instance, earlier this year Facebook said it would stop using the software in Europe and delete data used to identify Facebook users by their pictures. In a separate case earlier this year, a regional court in Berlin deemed “invalid” sections of Facebook’s terms of service  detailing how members’ emails were being used to solicit new users. The latest scuffle over the question of anonymity could be the beginning of a fresh saga for Facebook in the courts—and if the past is anything to go by, it may not end favorably for Zuckerburg and co.