Facebook v. Your Real Name

A German state has declared that Facebook’s policy requiring that a user identify himself by his real name violates that state’s law allowing the use of pseudonyms and contravenes the fundamental right to freedom of expression on the Internet (see here for an Associated Press article).

The Facebook Name Policy states:

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.

It further explains that this helps keep the Facebook community safe. Given this concern for safety, Facebook will remove all fake accounts.

This is not the first (and surely not the last) time that controversy surrounds one of Facebook’s privacy policies. Although a user of Facebook for many years now, I have to admit, I was not even aware of this policy. In fact, all the people I know on Facebook use their real names…

This raises a number of questions. Apart from the fact that it is yet to be determined whether Facebook is subject to this German state’s law, does this Facebook policy actually create a safer online environment and community for its users? On the other side, is the right to use a pseudonum really a matter of to be protected by freedom of expression? Facebook is set to fight this order to allow users to use pseudonyms. Let’s see how this privacy concern plays out.


  1. This issue was discussed a while back on Slaw here. It is a fair question to ask what one’s “real” name might be. Lots of varieties might be legitimate – see David Colllier-Brown’s comment on the linked note.

    Using a made-up name that sounds like a real person’s name would not be detectable, but would provide political or personal cover if needed. So Bob Jones creates an account as Dennis Smith – so long as Bob is not trying to defraud anyone by exercising Smith’s rights or assuming liabilities in Smith’s name, who cares?

    I have seen suggestions, maybe even here on Slaw, that a professional using FB should have a professional account separate from one’s personal account, so one can manage one’s image appropriately. Of course both accounts could have a real name: Robert F Jones for the professional one, Bobby Jones for the other (depending on the profession…).

    Anonymity is an important element of freedom of expression, though clearly subject to abuse. But does it matter if one is prevented from expressing oneself as ‘Concerned Citizen’ if one can express oneself as a made-up name of a person whose civic concerns will be conveyed by the content?

    All of this is separate from the degree of anonymity sought. A FB pseudonym will be of no protection against law enforcement looking for the ‘real’ arrestable person, and not much against a persistent party in a civil action. Anonymity/pseudonymity to criticize a repressive government will need much stronger methods than a made-up name on a social medium.

  2. When I signed up for my facebook account, I worked in a courthouse and was VERY leery of having my online social universe mixing freely with my professional duties. Balancing personal and professional was challenging enough while living in a small-ish community, and having an online space separate from ‘meat’ space was appreciated. So, I signed up with a pseudonym and figured that if it got shut down in a couple weeks, at least i had given fb a tryout.

    A few years later, once I moved on from my position at the courts, I looked into ‘converting’ my profile name to my ‘real’ name, but the hoops you have to jump through do not make it easy. As it is now, folks from just about every facet of my career / life have managed to find me and friend me on fb, so the infrastructure and fb finding tools have successfully bypassed any anonymity roadblocks. I stopped uploading photos years ago, and my use of fb central is limited to occasionally touching base, so the loss of the account now would not be a critical loss, given the other social media platforms that have sprung up since that do not have this real name requirement.

  3. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    I signed up to Facebook as part of a Web 2.0 Challenge class I was taking, I think. I wanted to explore it freely, yet maintain my privacy. I used my real name in Second Life. It was fun up until I noticed how difficult Facebook made it to express and define yourself. The photo tagging feature where Friends and Family can ID you, the collating of information from Likes, Interests, Pages, Notes, Updates, who’s Friending you, etc. So, behind my Second Life persona on Facebook, Facebook has created its own profile of who it thinks I really am. What it thinks my politics are. My gender, my race. I see it in the ads they push to me. Not cool!

    Considering removing content, I found that it’s easy to batch upload photos to Facebook, but hard to batch remove…I want to control who I am in social media. I don’t want Facebook dictating that. I don’t find Facebook protective of privacy at all. Go, Germany! :-)