Real-Name Policy Under Fire: Privacy Champions Hand Facebook an Ultimatum

A German state privacy protection authority issued an ultimatum to Facebook this week: The company can either stop forcing members to use their real names, or face fines. The social networking site says it will fight the demands by Schleswig-Holstein, calling the measures a "waste of German taxypayer money."

Anonymous use of Facebook should be allowed, German privacy advocates argue. Zoom
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Anonymous use of Facebook should be allowed, German privacy advocates argue.

One of Germany's top privacy regulators has ordered Facebook to stop its real-name policy, saying it violates the country's data protection laws.

In response to the social media site's refusal to allow pseudonyms, the Independent State Center for Data Privacy (ULD) in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein issued an ultimatum to the company's California headquarters on Monday.

Should Facebook Inc., which operates in the United States, and its Irish subsidiary Facebook Ltd., which runs European operations, refuse to comply within two weeks, they each face a fine of €20,000 ($26,000), ULD said.

The German Telemedia Act allows the use of online nicknames and, as such, Facebook must too, ULD said in a statement, writing that the company's positions on this and other issues were "in diametric opposition" to those of German data protection authorities.

"It is unacceptable that a US portal like Facebook violates German data protection law unopposed and with no prospect of an end," Schleswig-Holstein State Privacy Commissioner and ULC Director Thilo Weichert said. "The aim of the order by the ULD is to finally bring about a legal clarification of who is responsible for Facebook and to what this company is bound to. ... We hope for a fact-based debate not aimed at delaying action."

'Waste of Taxpayer Money'

ULC, which serves as the state's official authority for enforcing data privacy, is known for its stringent approach to data protection, having taken on Google Street View and Facebook's "Like" button in recent years with limited success.

Facebook has been insisting that users register with their real names, even encouraging them to out friends who fail to comply and blocking those users, claiming that this will help keep the site secure.

But ULD insists that anyone who has been thrown off the site for using a pseudonym must immediately be allowed to resume their membership, and users must also be informed of the option to use a nickname if they so choose.

In a statement to the ULD, the social network justified its position, saying that its Irish subsidiary Facebook Ltd. complies with European law.

Still, Facebook plans to fight the ULD's claims. "In our view, the decree is completely unfounded and a waste of German taxpayer money," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We will fight it vigorously."

-- kla, with wire reports

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