Facebook wins European court battle over right to fake names

Facebook’s lawyers have secured a victory over a German privacy group that wanted to force it to allow pseudonyms on the site.
Written by Moritz Jaeger, Contributor

Facebook has secured a win Germany's courts, where it's been defending itself against a lawsuit brought by ULD — a state-sponsored but independent organisation which aims to protect the privacy of internet users.

In December last year, the ULD (Unabhängiges Landeszentrum für Datenschutz, or Independent Regional Centre for Data Protection) was able to get an injunction against Facebook, the first step in forcing the social network to allow its users to use pseudonyms rather than their real names.

The social network requires new sign-ups to enter personal information, including their real name. Should the user opt to use a pseudonym when signing up, Facebook may lock down their account at a later date and only grant access to the account if they can provide legal identification documents. According to the ULD Schleswig-Holstein, that's against German law.

The administrative court of Schleswig-Holstein (the state in which the ULD is based) has now published a ruling in favour of Facebook, allowing it to mandate real names. The court based its decision on the fact that Facebook's offices in Europe are based in Ireland. For that reason, Germany's privacy laws (which are considered considerably stronger than Ireland's) don't apply, making Facebook's objection to the lawsuit permissable in the court's eyes.

This ruling marks a clear win for Facebook, leaving Thilo Weichert, head of the ULD and Schleswig-Holstein's state representative for privacy, baffled: "The court's decision is beyond jaw-dropping," he said in a statement. "The court contradicts itself by finding that Facebook does not fall under German law just because none of its data is processed in Germany while in the same sentence telling people that Irish law is applicable - even if there is also no data processed there."

Thanks to the court's decision, Weichert says, a company can now follow in Facebook’s footsteps and set up a branch in a European country with comparably light privacy laws to escape having to adhere to stronger laws found in other countries. 

The ULD is not going to accept the ruling and has already announce to appeal the decision at the next higher court, the Higher Administrative Court of Schleswig-Holstein. 

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