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German state orders Facebook to allow pseudonyms

The data-protection agency in one German state ordered the social network to end its policy of requiring members to establish accounts under their real names. Other states may follow.

Facebook is on the hot seat in Germany for requiring users to use their real names instead of pseudonyms.

The data protection agency Unabhaengiges Landeszentrum fuer Datenschutz (ULD) in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein has ordered Facebook to put a halt to its real name policy, citing a German law that allows people to use pseudonyms online. The agency pointed to that law as one that guarantees the "fundamental right to freedom of expression on the Internet."

The ULD's order so far only applies in Schleswig-Holstein, although other German states may follow its lead.

Facebook's policy of insisting that members use real names is designed to protect against the abuse of user accounts. Facebook's name policy specifically states that using real first and last names helps people know who they're connecting with and keeps the online community safe.

The ULD doesn't buy that argument, saying that "the real name obligation does neither prevent abuse of the service for insults or provocations nor does it help prevent identity theft." And beyond that, the policy is against the law, the ULD insists.

"It is unacceptable that a U.S. portal like Facebook violates German data protection law unopposed and with no prospect of an end," Thilo Weichert, the country's privacy commissioner and the head of ULD, said in a statement. "The aim of the orders of ULD is to finally bring about a legal clarification of who is responsible for Facebook and to what this company is bound to."

According to IT World, the ULD can only enforce the law in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, whose largest city is the local capital, Kiel. Weichert, however, argues that other German data-protection agencies will follow Schleswig-Holstein's lead.

Facebook insists it is in compliance with European data protection principles and Irish law, citing a recent report from the Irish data protection agency finding that the real name policy helps members manage their private information more securely.

In response to the order, a spokeswoman for Facebook sent CNET the following statement:

It is the role of individual services to determine their own policies about anonymity within the governing law -- for Facebook Ireland European data protection and Irish law. We believe the orders are without merit, a waste of German taxpayers' money and we will fight it vigorously.