Germany’s Data Protection Agency in Schleswig-Holstein (UDL) has ordered Facebook to immediately allow people to use any name they wish for their account, saying that the site’s current policy is “unacceptable” and “must be immediately abandoned by Facebook.”
The agency believes that by forcing users to operate their accounts with their real names Facebook is threatening their freedom of expression.
Writing on their website the agency says that Facebook must protect “the fundamental right to freedom of expression on the Internet.” Adding that, “The legislator has made it clear that Internet services such as Facebook may be used largely unnoticed and without fear of unpleasant consequences.”
Facebook has been a firm defender of its “real-name” policy, which prevents users from creating accounts with Twitter-style handles. The company says that such a rule allows users to know exactly who they are connecting to and is part of the company’s “mission of [pursuing] trust and security” for its users.
The UDL refutes this, saying that forcing people to use their real names does not prevent abuse from taking place on the site, nor does it prevent identity theft.
The Privacy Commissioner and Head of the Unabhängiges Landeszentrum für Datenschutz (UDL), Thilo Weichert, said;
It is unacceptable that a U.S. portal like Facebook violates German data protection law unopposed and with no prospect of an end. The aim of the orders of ULD [sic] is to finally bring about a legal clarification of who is responsible for Facebook and to what this company is bound to. Actually, this should be in the interest of the company, too. In so far, we hope for a fact-based debate not aimed at delaying action.”
In a growing spat between Facebook and the UDL the latter says that Facebook’s views are in “diametric opposition” to the data protection commissioner’s. Facebook says it complies with European data protection laws and has passed several inspections by the Irish Data Protection Agency (not that the UDL was pleased with the outcome of those reports), which oversees the company’s compliance on behalf of other EU agencies.
Weichert added that the issue was urgent, due to changes Facebook will soon be implementing that will make it more difficult for users to prevent their accounts from being discovered in search results.
“In view of the fact that Facebook currently is taking the opportunity from all its members to decide themselves about their own discoverability under their name, our initiative is more urgent than ever.”
Germany has a number of data protection agencies and if the UDL’s demands are met then it is likely that other agencies in the country, and across Europe, will follow with similar demands.
Germany has far stricter data protection and privacy laws than the US, Ireland, and the UK and only yesterday we reported that the UDL believes that Google’s latest maps app is in breach of European data protection laws. Germany and Google have previously fallen out over the use of Google Analytics data and Google Street View.
Facebook has two weeks to appeal the order, and it says that will do so.