A Berlin state court has ruled that Facebook’s policy of requiring users to disclose their real names violates privacy law. The court said the relevant clause in Facebook’s terms of service is a “pre-formulated statement” that does not establish genuine consent and is therefore illegal. The case was brought by the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband (VZBV), or Federation of Consumer Organizations, which argues Facebook must accept anonymous users. Hamburg’s data protection authority made a similar claim in 2015, which a Hamburg court later rejected. Forcing Facebook to abandon the real names policy in Germany would create a backdoor that anyone anywhere in the world could exploit, including online trolls, extremists, racists, and bigots, thereby hurting consumers and the many other sites and services that depend on social media platforms.
There are good reasons why users would choose a platform where everyone uses their real name. Anonymity encourages people to speak their minds, protects whistleblowers, and lets writers publish without their identities influencing readers. But anonymity can get in the way of civilized discourse when it emboldens people to harass, threaten, and incite violence without fear of any legal, professional, or social repercussions. The real names policy is one reason some services—like dating apps and news sites—require their users to login using their Facebook account. For example, one study found that users were significantly more likely to post vitriolic comments on news articles when they could post anonymously than when they had to use a Facebook profile. If Facebook allowed anonymous users, incivility on these services would rise.
That would undermine German policymakers’ desire to stop hate speech, fight fake news, and protect children online. For example, the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has argued that Facebook “is not effectively stopping racist ‘posts’ and comments” and led the push for Germany’s controversial new law, the NetzDG, which fines online platforms that do not remove hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Maintaining its real name policy is one of the most effective ways Facebook can keep these problems in check since users are less likely to engage in these activities if their identities are public. For sites like Facebook this is a catch-22: they are attacked for not doing enough to stop these types of activities and for not allowing anonymous users, even though allowing them would likely increase the prevalence of this type of antisocial behavior.
Finally, Facebook is not interfering with anyone’s right to anonymity. Internet users have many places where they can post anonymously, such as Twitter, and myriad online forums. Even Facebook makes exceptions for people in extreme circumstances, such as victims of stalking. But requiring a platform to allow anonymity in all cases is a bit like forcing a kosher restaurant to serve pork chops when there is a barbecue joint right next door: given the alternatives available, an ordinance like this just limits consumer choice. No one is obliged to use Facebook, and everything about Facebook—right down to its name—advertises the fact that it is not anonymous. If somebody does not want their name online, they can refrain from joining platforms where being identifiable by name is the whole point.
The famous New Yorker cartoon that said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” was meant as commentary about the relative anonymity of the early Internet, not as a directive for future policymakers. Anonymity on social networks is a complex matter, and policymakers should allow these platforms to strike the balance that works best for their users.