German privacy regulator orders Facebook to end its real name policy

Facebook said it would vigorously fight the order

A German privacy regulator ordered Facebook to stop enforcing its real name policy because it violates a German law that gives users the right to use nicknames online.

Facebook refused to permit the use of pseudonyms on its platform as required by the German Telemedia Act, Thilo Weichert, privacy commissioner and head of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ULD) Schleswig-Holstein said on Monday. The ULD issued a decree forcing Facebook to start allowing pseudonyms immediately, he said.

"This decree is binding," said Weichert, who added that it is unacceptable that a U.S. portal like Facebook keeps violating German data protection law. To ensure users' rights and comply with data protection law in general, the real name obligation must be immediately abandoned by Facebook, the ULD said.

The orders were issued on Friday against Facebook USA and Facebook Ireland, which is responsible for all Facebook's activities outside of the U.S. and Canada.

Facebook has always had a real-name policy. Users should use their name as listed on their credit card or student ID, so people know who they are connecting with, Facebook states in its name policy. Any accounts set up under fake names will be removed from the site when discovered in order to keep the community safe, according to Facebook.

While the ULD can only enforce its mandate on behalf of Facebook users in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, the order could be adopted by other German data protection authorities, Weichert said. "We informed our colleagues and most of the supervising authorities agree with us," he said.

However, similar orders weren't issued in the other states because the ULD's order is being used as a pilot case, Weichert said.

The social network has two weeks to object to the order in court, or it could also decide to simply comply, he said. However, Weichert expects Facebook to fight the decree.

"We believe the orders are without merit, a waste of German taxpayers' money and we will fight it vigorously," a Facebook spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. It is the role of individual services to determine their own policies about anonymity within the governing law, she added. Facebook's real name policy complies with European data protection principles and Irish law, according to the social network.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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