German court says Facebook’s real name policy is illegal

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A German court ruled that Facebook’s real name policy is illegal and that users must be allowed to sign up for the service under pseudonyms to comply with a decade-old privacy law. The ruling, made last month but only now being announced, comes from the Berlin Regional Court and was detailed today by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (abbreviated from German as VZBV), which filed the lawsuit against Facebook.

Facebook says it will appeal the ruling, but also that it will make changes to comply with European Union privacy laws coming into effect in June, according to Reuters. “We are working hard to ensure that our guidelines are clear and easy to understand, and that the services offered by Facebook are in full accordance with the law,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

According to the VZBV, the court found that Facebook’s real name policy was “a covert way” of obtaining users’ consent to share their names, which are one of many pieces of information the court said Facebook did not properly obtain users’ permission for. The court also said that Facebook did not provide a clear choice to users for other default settings, such as to share their location in chats, and it ruled against clauses that allowed Facebook to use information such as profile pictures for “commercial, sponsored, or related content.”

VZBV notes that it didn’t win on all counts, though. Facebook prevailed on a complaint that it was misleading to say the service was free, because as VZBV put it, consumers pay “with their data.” It also lost on other privacy issues, which VZBV intends to appeal.

Given that the ruling comes from a regional court and that both parties intend to appeal, it’s unlikely that some of these decisions are going to be final. But it’s still bad news for Facebook — and good news for users — that a consumer advocacy group is finding success as it pushes back against the social network’s generous data sharing policies, which are often more a benefit to the company than to people using the service.

Facebook has been tangling with European countries and European Union privacy laws for the past few years. The laws tend to be much stricter than those it faces back in the US. And while the company may be able to modify some privacy rules on a country by country basis, Europe’s fight for consumers could ultimately strength privacy for users globally.

Comments

Either FB will allow Germans to have fake names, or Germany will cave in

FB will lose.

Yours

Hans Kneezunboompsadaisy.

It’s judicial and regulatory overreach like this that make me glad I live on this side of the pond.

Facebook is not some kind of human right, it’s a business. Part of their business model depends on their real name policy. It’s good for their business, and I, as a user, like having a platform where users aren’t hiding behind pseudonyms.

If you don’t like the policy, use another social platform – there are plenty.

EU courts and regulators act like their citizens are helpless rubes who are incapable of protecting themselves online or of navigating an EULA and account settings.

As you say, there’s benefits in people not hiding behind pseudonyms. People can and do create fake identities on FB, but discouraging it isn’t a problem.
If anything, enforce it more.

For all the other problems associated with Facebook, this is not on of them. This is the way Facebook does it. Accept it, or go elsewhere.

You are right for the most part but you don’t take into account that more and more there is no choice to using Facebook. Political events are scheduled on it etc. So not using it is becoming less and less of an option. As that choice erodes and they become more of a monopoly their protections under a free market should erode alongside.

I agree. A lot of facebook content is not visible unless you are signed in, and creating an account forces you to disclose things FB doesn’t even need to know if you don’t use FB even for social media.

Agreed. There are plenty of forums and websites where you can be anonymous.

Facebook is an alternative to places such as Reddit, Twitter, and it’s USP is that you know the people you’re communicating with really are who they say they are.

I don’t use FB at all, but in this situation I agree with their stance. If someone wants to be anonymous, use Reddit (like I do).

Just because you don’t use your real name online it doesn’t necessarily mean you are anonymous.

IP addresses can quite easily be linked back to the router you are connecting to, even some VPN’s can give away your location (or in some cases sites are able to detect if you’re using a VPN and block you – the same way Netflix prevents people from watching foreign Netflix), and IP addresses can only be used by the owners rather than general public, and it’s up to the owners who they share that IP address with.

The only people who would find it harder to track you is the general public, with facebooks real name policy there is the danger that someone could look at where someone is taking pictures or where their friends are from, and figure out from this where the person lives, even if they hide this information on facebook if their first name is not common and they are on the electoral roll then someone can easily link all the bits together and find the person using a combination of facebook and 192.com

Also even with the real name policy in place there is no guarantee that the person is who they are say they are, the obvious ones like "Donald Duck" or "Mickey Mouse" are going to get noticed quite easily although I don’t see why someone with a surname of Duck couldn’t call their child Donald, or even someone might have had their name changed to it – after all prince turned his name into a symbol – I wonder if symbol ever did have a facebook account? and does facebook have the symbol font in their dictionary?? And where do facebook stand if someone changes their name either through marriage or deed poll – do you have to immediately change the name on facebook or can you use both names if you joined facebook before your name change, and not only that with the amount of hacked facebook accounts anyway there is a lot of people using fake names anyway of hacked accounts.

If Germany wins in this court case, I will simply say back to you:

If you don’t like the policy, use another social platform – there are plenty.

¯\(ツ)

Blah blah blah… better US… blah blah blah… bad Europe… blah blah blah… freedom… blah blah blah…
Even the usual bullshit is still bullshit, you know.

So what’s your position on this court ruling?

I can’t even begin to fathom why you would be interested in my position in this matter, which has absolutely no interest and no weight whatsoever, just like that of the first poster – only, s/he couldn’t see it. His/her reaction is 100% ideological and chauvinistic, based on absolute ignorance and disrespect both of the outside world and of reality. In other words, "fundamentally stupid, to the core".

Thanks for your thoughtful, cogent reply. I don’t feel that the U.S. is superior to the EU in every regard – there are a lot of areas where the EU clearly excels – healthcare, retirement and the social safety net come to mind. When it comes to fostering business, however, the EU is, in my opinion far too restrictive and regulation oriented. Let companies create their products as they see fit, and let users decide if they want to use them or not.

"there are a lot of areas where the EU clearly excels – healthcare, retirement and the social safety net"

And privacy protection. Of citizens. You know, the people. Meanwhile since April 2017 basically all of your online data is up for grabs. Yeah! Rejoice, there’s going to be business!

"When it comes to fostering business, however, the EU is, in my opinion far too restrictive and regulation oriented"

And it has little to nothing to do with the case at hand. And the legal philosophy is so fundamentally different it hardly even makes any sense to even mention that.

"Let companies create their products as they see fit"

And you should realize that doesn’t exist. Anywhere. In the world.

"and let users decide if they want to use them or not."

And that’s bullshit. We’re not talking about choosing where you shop between your local Costco vs Wal-mart here. We’re talking about an outlet used by more than half of the Western world, without a real competition, and whose influence is sufficient that it has been and still is in the crosshairs of intelligence services for manipulation of the last elections in the US and Europe.
So, please. Be serious, will you?

Remind me how many successful social networks have begun in Europe and spread around the world because people are so concerned about their privacy? The regulatory environment in the EU stifles business and creates an environment that fails to allow businesses to expand and provide innovative services that their customers want. The US is clearly more hospitable to innovation because the government and courts largely stay out of the way.

Facebook users have shown that they are willing to trade their anonymity for the utility the platform provides. There are many viable alternatives for those who prefer not to reveal their identity. Revolutions have been started on Twitter.

So, you came back with blah blah blah… better US… blah blah blah… bad Europe… blah blah blah… freedom… blah blah blah.
I notice though that you haven’t addressed a single point I’ve presented. Not a single one. It’s almost art.
Wait… are you Mike Huckabee?

It’s clear that there is a fundamental difference of opinion regarding privacy.

The EU prioritizes privacy over business interests and innovation. Privacy, it would seem, trumps all other considerations. To think that demanding privacy can be done without a cost is naive. The point in my original comment was that I prefer the US approach that balances business interests against privacy and allows consumers to decide how important it is to them.

Your position, as best as I can summarize is blah blah blah PRIVACY blah blah blah evil corporations blah blah blah monopoly.

The tonality of our exchange makes us both look stupid, so I’ll try to shift to more civility and thoughtfulness – I will still point out you’re guilty of another straw man though

I believe there is a fundamentally different philosophy and thus attitude towards online data in EU vs US. I believe for us, Europeans (it’s obviously a generalization) the data we produce online is seen as an extension of our personas. Just as the production of our psyches is protected by intellectual property, or our bodies are protected by various ethics fundamentals and the laws that stem from them, we see the data we produce online – even unwillingly, since it’s unavoidable – as basically our property, to be protected from inappropriate use. Whereas it seems in the US it is closer to the dust under your shoes after a walk in the park (notice there is no judgement in my description).
Interestingly enough, being a qualitative market researcher, I’ve just had a deep insight into the opinion of 36 Europeans, from 6 countries, on the matter: in a casual conversation where the topic proposed was just "digitization", every single one of them spontaneously expressed a concern about the use of the data trail they leave on internet, and a will to regain and ensure they keep control. What I mean to say is, don’t think this is simply a top to the bottom attitude. No, what you called "judicial and regulatory overreach" is the expression of the will of the people, in rich and democratic countries.
And that’s what made me leap at your first comment: we are talking about a democratic country here, arguably more democratic than the US. And that you would diss this court decision because you think business is more important than the will of the people expressed in democratic elections seemed another example of the too common American arrogance – read my words carefully, I’m not talking about you as a person but about the contents of your comment – that can’t even consider an alternative philosophy as valuable if different.
I personally don’t think an option is better than the other, as long as the framework is an expression of the democratic process. And shockingly at this point in the US, I really doubt that it is.
Hope that clarifies the reasons for my acrimony and that we can have a civil conversation if you wish to answer.
Best.

What are you on about? There are probably millions of accounts which don’t have actual names (not to mention REAL names and surnames). If you were to ever translate any of them into English you might actually laugh. Does "Tin Bender" sound like a geniune name to you?

I had a Facebook account for years with the fake name Phillip Adrian Bowl, or Phil A. Bowl for short. This idea that everyone is who they say they are on Facebook is a joke.

Eh whatever. I only used the service to log in to Spotify back in the day when they required a Facebook account to even sign up. It’s an awful policy for an awful platform that even some of its highest people have denounced.

Good for Germany.

I had a Facebook account for years with the fake name Phillip Adrian Bowl, or Phil A. Bowl for short. This idea that everyone is who they say they are on Facebook is a joke.

Eh whatever. I only used the service to log in to Spotify back in the day when they required a Facebook account to even sign up. It’s an awful policy for an awful platform that even some of its highest people have denounced.

Good for Germany.

so why bother suing Facebook in German courts?

"Facebook is not some kind of human right, it’s a business."

Exactly! FB is a business. So, if it wants to do its business in Europe, it has to follow European rules/laws. Accept it or get out of Europe.

Muh business rights!

Lol real name policy, that’s just a suggestion folks, that’s all policy’s are on websites.

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