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Facebook not obliged to let German members use pseudonyms, court rules

A German court has found that Facebook cannot be forced to allow its users to use fake names on the social network.

The Administrative Court for Schleswig-Holstein ruled in favour of Facebook over an order requiring the site to let German members use pseudonyms.

"We are pleased with the decision, [which] we believe ... is a step into the right direction," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. "We hope that our critics will understand that 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 therefore feel affirmed that the orders are without merit."

The decision is a one part of a larger battle over real names in Germany. Today's ruling allows Facebook to require real names in the country while the case plays out.

In December, the Unabhaengiges Landeszentrum fuer Datenschutz (ULD) data protection agency said that German law protects "the fundamental right to freedom of expression on the Internet." German citizens should be able to use Facebook "largely unnoticed and without fear of unpleasant consequences," the ULD said.

"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, Privacy Commissioner and head of ULD, said in a statement at the time. "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."

In a translated statement today, Weichert said the decision "would result in a one-stop-shop system such as in a European privacy basic regulation," and vowed to appeal.

Facebook argues that Irish data protection officials handle privacy-related issues in Europe regarding Facebook because of the social network's presence there. The Schleswig-Holstein court agreed, finding that "Irish data protection law applies." The ULD, however, says it should have jurisdiction over German users.

According to Facebook's name policy, "Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you're connecting with." As a result, users are not permitted to craft MySpace-esque names with symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, repeating characters, or punctuation.

Using real names means people know who they're connecting with, which "helps keep our community safe," Facebook said.