Facebook Real Name Policy Challenged by German Privacy Watchdog

Facebook calls the order "a waste of German taxpayers' money."

  @YannickLeJacq on December 18 2012 4:14 PM
Facebook
The warning going around claiming that "Facebook will be closed for maintenance from February 29th to 31st" is nothing to worry about. Reuters

A German privacy watchdog has ordered Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) to stop enforcing its policy making users register their real names as a prerequisite to setting up accounts. While the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social media company began vigorously enforcing its real name policy this fall in the wake of a revelation that some 83 million user accounts were fake, the Independent Center for Privacy Protection (ULD) said that policy is “unacceptable” in a statement issued Monday.

The ULD demanded that Facebook begin allowing members to user pseudonyms for their social media profiles, saying the requirement violates German privacy laws and grants no benefit to consumers.

"It is unacceptable that a U.S. portal like Facebook violates German data protection law unopposed and with no prospect of an end," Thilo Weichert, the national privacy commissioner and head of the ULD, said in Monday’s statement. "The aim of the orders of ULD is to finally bring about a legal clarification of who is responsible for Facebook and to what this company is bound to."

Facebook promised to “fight” the charge “vigorously” in a statement emailed to the press, saying of the ULD that “the orders are without merit and a waste of German taxpayers' money.”

“It is the role of individual services to determine their own policies about anonymity within the governing law -- for Facebook Ireland European data protection and Irish law,” Facebook’s statement added.

The ULD is challenging Facebook’s real name policy on behalf of the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which according to IT World means that the order could only be enforced in that region, whose capital is Kiel.

Weichert, however, argued that other German data-protection agencies would follow Schleswig-Holstein's lead in establishing a new legal precedent for Facebook.

“Actually, this should be in the interest of the company too,” Weichert said. “We hope for a fact-based debate not aimed at delaying action. In view of the fact that Facebook currently is taking the opportunity from all its members to decide themselves about their own discoverability under their name, our initiative is more urgent than ever.”

Facebook now has two weeks to contest the order in court.

Interestingly enough, another German state took a markedly different stance on social media transparency last October when police requested that Twitter remove an account affiliated with a neo-Nazi organization. The proliferation of pseudonymous social media accounts could create new problems for German police hoping to regulate hate speech.

Facebook shares rose around one percent during trading Tuesday, reaching $27.91 in late afternoon trading.

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