A German court ruled in January that Facebook’s policy requiring users to use a real name is illegal, and that individuals using the platform must be allowed to use pseudonyms on their profiles. Though the ruling was made last month, the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, abbreviated as VZBV, which brought the challenge against Facebook, shared details in a press release about the ruling Monday.
The court essentially found that Facebook’s real name policy is a veiled way of compelling users to share their names without adequate consent, according to VZBZ. It also found that Facebook didn’t obtain clear consent when sharing users’ location information on its mobile chat feature, and it declared illegal “pre-formulated” Facebook policies that allowed the company to use a users’ name and image “for commercial, sponsored or related content.” But this was only a partial victory for the consumer watchdog. The court didn’t agree that it was misleading for Facebook to claim to be free, as VZBZ charged, since users “pay with their data.” Facebook and VZBZ both plan to appeal.
The ruling marks an interesting turn for Facebook, which has argued with some users over its real name policy for years, and, like other internet companies, has been hard at work readying for the start of new EU data privacy laws that are set to go into effect in later this year.
Facebook has had a real name policy since the company started in 2004. As it expanded, the company began to enforce its real name policy with more rigor, since not doing so was starting to have real consequences for Facebook’s bottom line.
In May 2012, Facebook said in a filing to the Security and Exchange Commission that 5 to 6 percent of the accounts on its platform were fake, which caused the social media network’s stock to plunge nearly 15 percent at the time. The efforts weren’t always successful. As part of the company’s cleanup efforts, it deactivated the account of novelist Salman Rushdie in 2011 because, technically, his “real” first name is Ahmed. Facebook eventually changed his name back to Salman. Still, the company continued with its awkward enforcement.
The company’s policy is generally that your name on the social media site should be the same as the one listed on your credit card or driver’s license—although it has allowed exceptions.
By 2014, the people who were being adversely affected by the policy were racking up, and that fall they started to organize, in large thanks to the work of Sister Roma, a member of the San Francisco drag queen group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In September 2014, Facebook suspended her account because it was listed under her name Sister Roma, which Facebook contended wasn’t real, and so like Rushdie, she took to Twitter to complain, using the hashtag #MyNameIsRoma. Her problem, it turns out, was shared by many, including other drag queens, people fleeing domestic violence, people in the transgender community, and many immigrants, all of whom could no longer use their legal names for serious safety reasons. Her complaint quickly snowballed into a campaign that garnered thousands of supporters.
“Our drag names are technically pseudonyms. They are not fake names,” Sister Roma told me in an interview. “They are authentic identities.”
The next month, in October 2014, Facebook met with members from the campaign, including Sister Roma, and the company agreed to bend their policies and make room for people who have exceptional cases to use the names they go by, rather than their legal name. Now, Sister Roma says, there’s a special circumstances option, where you can check a box and describe why your Facebook name isn’t your legal name, like if you’re transgender or use an alternate name because you’re fleeing some kind of dangerous situation. That’s true, but when I tried as an experiment to change my name, it took a lot of digging to find the page where you can request a change.
“I have to commend Facebook for taking us seriously and working with us for years,” said Sister Roma, but she said there’s still more that could be done. For example, Facebook still has an option where people can be reported for using fake names—an apparent guard against people making imposter accounts. Sister Roma thinks that shouldn’t be an option. Reporting someone’s name could be used as a form of harassment and lead to account suspensions.
So while Facebook says it plans to appeal the decision in Germany that struck down its fake name policy, people in the U.S. who have been reckoning with it for years see the German court’s decision as a positive sign. Eden Will, a transgender activist in San Francisco, who has struggled with her name on Facebook for years, told me she’s very happy to see the court “making the correct decision on this one.”