Facebook can nix German users with fake names

Court rules in favor of the social network's real-name policy, overturning a previous order from the Hamburg data protection authority.

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Facebook's real-name policy stands in Germany.

Jochen Eckel/dpa/Corbis

The beauty of the Internet is that when you're online you can be anybody you want. Except on Facebook, where you have to be yourself.

Facebook users in Germany can be forced by the social network to go by their real names, a court ruled on Thursday.

The decision, reported by Reuters, is a success for the social network, which has struggled to implement its real-names policy in the Germany. The court ruled against a previous decision by the Hamburg data protection authority, the watchdog that polices Facebook in Germany, which said the social network could not force users to comply with its real name policy if they didn't want to.

Facebook asks users to register with their real names because it is a place where "people use their authentic identities" and because it keeps users "safe." The majority of users happily use Facebook under their real names, but some users are negatively impacted by the policy. The site has not always made provisions for countries or communities that have unusual naming conventions, and has sometimes deactivated the accounts of users who have seemingly implausible names.

In December 2015, the company issued an apology to members of the LGBT community and abuse victims who had been negatively affected by the policy. It is currently developing special provisions for people in unique circumstances to use pseudonyms subject to identity verification.

These policies won't apply to most users, however, presumably including the woman who first raised the issue of wanting to use a pseudonym on Facebook with the Hamburg watchdog in the first place. The woman was asked to show identification to the Menlo Park, California-based social network and had her account deactivated when she refused.

The data protection authority said this violated the woman's right to privacy. The German court ruled that Facebook does not have to the implement the watchdog's orders.

Facebook is "pleased" with the court's ruling, a company spokeswoman told CNET. "Our names policy protects privacy by ensuring that people know who they're sharing with and helping them manage their accounts safely."

The German court's decision rested on the fact that Facebook's European headquarters are in Ireland. The company therefore only needs to comply with orders from the Irish data protection authority. Ireland decided back in 2011 that Facebook's real-name policy did not violate people's right to privacy.

"The ruling also confirms the applicability of Irish data protection law to Facebook's service, agreeing with the other courts that have reviewed our policy," said the spokeswoman.

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