No more fake names: German court sides with Facebook over pseudonym lawsuit

No more fake names: German court sides with Facebook over pseudonym lawsuit

Summary: A regional court in Germany has ruled that Facebook is not subject to German privacy law, thanks to being headquartered in Dublin.


Facebook has scored a major victory over German privacy advocates in the battle over whether users of the social networking site should have the right to use a fake name.

The Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (Unabhängiges Landeszentrums für Datenschutz or ULD) — a state-sponsored but independent organisation which aims to protect the privacy of internet users — had been trying to enforce a court order obliging Facebook to allow pseudonyms and nicknames.

The ULD had lodged an appeal with the Schleswig-Holstein administrative court of appeals (OVG) against rulings made by the Schleswig administrative court that Facebook — whose European HQ is in Dublin, Ireland — is subject to Irish rather than German privacy law. According to the OVG, Facebook Germany is just an ad sales and marketing organisation, and is separate to Facebook Ireland.

Consequently, as the OVG found Facebook is only bound by Irish law in such matters, the administrative court's ruling that Facebook had to allow individuals to use fake names was effectively repealed.

This decision is, according to the ULD, a severe blow to data and privacy protection, because it means that German data protection law cannot be applied to Facebook directly.

"The court allowed that the applicability of the strict German data protection law is undermined by clever internal organisation in an IT company... For both users and German companies which have to comply with the German data protection standards, it is difficult to understand why an offer for the German market may ignore these standards," Thilo Weichert, the head of the ULD, said in a statement.

"The OVG decisions should be understood by politics as a signal that at European level the data protection regulation currently under discussion must not only enshrine a high standard of data protection, but also assure sufficient enforcement actions. Otherwise, Facebook will by means of organisational tricks keep trying to escape an effective data protection control. We are currently experiencing that international IT companies escape payment of taxes by means of a sophisticated internal organisation. Politics must prevent the development of both, tax havens as well as privacy havens – ie areas without effective privacy supervision," he added.

Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.

While Weichert said he finds the decision regrettable, he welcomed an end to ambiguity around Facebook's pseudonyms policy.

Separate legal proceedings to determine whether German data protection law is applicable to German organisations that operate a Facebook fan page have been ongoing since December 2011. The OVG's decision doesn't make any reference to the case, and the ULD is hoping to see the matter cleared up soon.

This is not the first time that German-speaking privacy advocates have tried to see tighter data privacy regulation brought to bear on Facebook. The Austrian student group Europe-v-Facebook, for example, is currently crowdsourcing money to fund a civil case against the social network, claiming it's violating European data protection law. According to its website, the group has secured nearly €40,000 - a long way from the €100,000 they say they need to cover their legal bill. 

Topics: Privacy, EU, Social Enterprise

Moritz Jaeger

About Moritz Jaeger

Moritz is a Munich-based IT-journalist with more than eight years of experience as an author under his belt.

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  • Why?

    It seems odd, that somebody would join a social network, to join with friends, using a fake name. How are they supposed to find you? And having found you, they would know your real name. If it is for privacy, then don't join!

    On the other hand, the real story, that Facebook (and other organisations) can ignore German law is a very big story indeed.

    It would be like a Dutchman going to New York and getting picked up for smoking dope and arguing that it was legal where he lived, so the NYPD couldn't touch him...
  • Why a fake name/pseudonym, really?

    I'd say it's easy and obvious. Because there are people with brains who want to use Facebook, and KNOW that putting everything up under their given name is f'ing idiotic.
    They may have political, religious, or even sexual views that they know would be problems if an overly restrictive company were to think about hiring them. Perhaps they want a place to post their stupid 'drunk' pics.. and share with only friends, not the world.

    In short, one 'normal' account... and one 'for friends only' account. As honestly, FB cannot be relied to keep the private stuff truly private.
    • There are plenty

      of networks, where you can post anonymously, the whole point of Facebook is a network, where people can find each other under their real names.

      If you don't want Facebook to share your stuff, don't post it.

      I can understand the reasons you state, but those are also reasons why you would join a more specialist network for those topics, where that information won't be made public, or you can use a pseudonym.
  • Facebook privacy.

    I can never understand the people who say they want to keep things private, then put them on the internet. Why do you want to share compromising pictures or opinions with someone You can't get to personally?

    It seems to me that much of the stuff people share on Facebook are things they should really keep to themselves.

    There are people who want to make it compulsory for employees to use social networking sites to share communications and stay connected all of the time.

    None of this makes any sense to my limited understanding.
  • Why should German law impose their restrictions on an American company...

    Operating on the Internet?

    The Open Internet would seem to imply when you SIGN up and AGREE to their terms of USE, you forfeit the cry of local law protections, they didn't come to your house and sign up...

    Want fake name?

    Create Fraudbook, and you and all your friends can create find names and ignore each other?
    • the law

      on the other hand, Americans cry foul if foreign companies try and do business with them and they don't follow American law... You can't have it both ways.
  • Why would someone want to use a fake name?

    Why would someone want to use a fake name?

    For his own reasons, well-known tech journalist Robert X Cringely isn't really Robert X Cringely...

    For reasons of her own, futurist Faith Popcorn isn't really Faith Popcorn...

    Just because you can't think of a valid reason doesn't mean that there isn't one. Just because you can't think of anything except nefarious reasons for doing so doesn't meant that others are "guilty." There are other possibilities beyond what one person's mind can conceive.

    Why don't you ask Ms. Popcorn or Mr. Cringely why they use fake names in a real business setting and work harder at not being an unimaginative @55...
    • So all rules can be broken...

      if your they go against your ideals?

      Facebook set out to create a social network under its own terms. Those terms should be respected and followed by all that agreed to them upon registering. Their house, their rules.
      Facebook is privilege, not a right.