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German court says Facebook’s real name policy is illegal

A German court ruled that Facebook’s real name policy is illegal and that users must be allowed to sign up for the service under pseudonyms to comply with a decade-old privacy law. The ruling, made last month but only now being announced, comes from the Berlin Regional Court and was detailed today by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (abbreviated from German as VZBV), which filed the lawsuit against Facebook.

Facebook says it will appeal the ruling, but also that it will make changes to comply with European Union privacy laws coming into effect in June, according to Reuters. “We are working hard to ensure that our guidelines are clear and easy to understand, and that the services offered by Facebook are in full accordance with the law,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

According to the VZBV, the court found that Facebook’s real name policy was “a covert way” of obtaining users’ consent to share their names, which are one of many pieces of information the court said Facebook did not properly obtain users’ permission for. The court also said that Facebook did not provide a clear choice to users for other default settings, such as to share their location in chats, and it ruled against clauses that allowed Facebook to use information such as profile pictures for “commercial, sponsored, or related content.”

VZBV notes that it didn’t win on all counts, though. Facebook prevailed on a complaint that it was misleading to say the service was free, because as VZBV put it, consumers pay “with their data.” It also lost on other privacy issues, which VZBV intends to appeal.

Given that the ruling comes from a regional court and that both parties intend to appeal, it’s unlikely that some of these decisions are going to be final. But it’s still bad news for Facebook — and good news for users — that a consumer advocacy group is finding success as it pushes back against the social network’s generous data sharing policies, which are often more a benefit to the company than to people using the service.

Facebook has been tangling with European countries and European Union privacy laws for the past few years. The laws tend to be much stricter than those it faces back in the US. And while the company may be able to modify some privacy rules on a country by country basis, Europe’s fight for consumers could ultimately strength privacy for users globally.


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