Facebook told to stop forcing people to use their real names

A German data watchdog has told Facebook it has to let it users choose pseudonyms if they like.

A German data protection watchdog has told Facebook that it can't force people to use their real names.

The ruling from the Hamburg data protection authority, which Reuters notes is the regulator that governs Facebook in Germany, stemmed from a complaint by a woman that the social network had blocked her account for using a pseudonym.

According to the report, Facebook then requested a copy of the woman's ID and changed her account username to her real name.

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The woman had attempted to use a pseudonym to avoid being contacted about business matters through her personal Facebook account.

Facebook had also attempted to argue, as it's done in prior privacy cases brought in Europe, that since its headquarters is in Ireland, the company should be subject to Irish law, where its real name policy is allowed. A 2011 audit by the Irish data protection authority ruled that the policy was lawful and justified since it supported child safety and the prevention of online harassment, according to Reuters.

Hamburg's commissioner for data protection, Johannes Caspar, however said that Facebook needs to play by German rules.

"For that matter Facebook cannot again argue that only Irish data protection law would be applicable... anyone who stands on our pitch also has to play our game," he told Reuters.

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to ZDNet that its policy complies with European data protection law.

"We're disappointed Facebook's authentic name policy is being revisited, since German courts have reviewed it on multiple occasions and regulators have determined it fully complies with applicable European data protection law. The use of authentic names on Facebook protects people's privacy and safety by ensuring people know who they're sharing and connecting with," the spokesperson said.

Facebook's Help pages say that its real name policy is intended to keep its community safe.

According to Bloomberg, Caspar's position has legal grounding under Germany's Telemedia Act, which 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's stance on its real name policy has wavered over the years.

Last year, in response to protests from the LGBQT community, Facebook promised to fix its reporting and enforcement mechanisms after one Facebook user reported several hundred accounts - many of them drag queens or kings - as fake, leading Facebook to suspend the accounts. Facebook's chief product officer Chris Cox said its policy has never been to require people to use their legal name, however the spirit of its policy was that everyone use "the authentic name they use in real life".

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