The Hamburg data protection authority in Germany has ruled that Facebook’s “real name” policy — one which states that users must use their actual names as opposed to chosen names for their profiles — violates users’ rights to privacy. The regulator ruled that people should be allowed to use pseudonyms, and cannot be forced to provide official identification such as passports or IDs. Hamburg claims that Facebook has enforced these rules with no regard to Germany’s national legislation, preempting Facebook’s claims that it has no legal obligation to countries in Europe other than Ireland. This recent declaration from Hamburg is one of many in a longstanding feud between the U.S.-based social network and European data protection authorities.
Belgium is another European country to recently attack Facebook for its privacy policies and operations. Belgium’s privacy watchdog accused Facebook in May of “trampling” on European privacy laws, saying that by tracking people online without their consent and dodging questions from national regulators the company refused to recognize Belgian and other E.U. national jurisdictions. (Facebook has used the argument in the past that since its data servers are located in Ireland, it is only subject to Irish law.) In June, Belgium authorities announced that they would be taking Facebook to court, not just for users in Belgium, but those around the continent.
Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, has already issued commentary on Facebook’s claim about its sole obligation to Ireland. As quoted by The Guardian, he said:
In this case, Facebook can not retreat to the position that the Irish Data Protection Act sets the standard here. Last year the ECJ blocked that position with case-law related to Google’s search engine. Facebook has economic activity in Gemany with its branch in Hamburg. So: if you like our game, you must play by our rules.
In response, Facebook has said that ongoing European probes have the potential to derail the company’s revenue growth — a danger Europe clearly doesn’t care about. It is undeniable that investigations into and allegations against Facebook have increased in number and severity since Edward Snowden’s leaks about the U.S. and the U.K.’s global surveillance tactics back in 2013. (It bears noting that Germany was one of the most irate countries following Snowden’s revelations, and for a time Merkel-Obama relations were sour.)
Given Hamburg’s tough stance, there is no doubt that Facebook is in for more grief — although, one would imagine it is used to it by now.