No, Facebook shouldn’t decide whether people post under their real names.
That was the key message judges at Germany’s Federal Court of Justice had for the social media giant: On Thursday, it ruled that Facebook was wrong to suspend the accounts of two German users in 2018 because they didn’t hadn’t used their legal names.
It was a wise decision and it sends a strong signal: the problem of hate circulating online is real, but forcing people to use their full name won’t solve it.
Worse still, such obligations can end up hurting some of the most vulnerable members of society.
The debate over whether people should disclose their name online is as old as the internet.
Proponents like Facebook argue that it makes people more accountable for what they say.
But whether this is true remains disputed. And even if – and it’s a big “if” – such a real-name policy deters some users from posting hateful and illegal content, the harms still outweigh the benefits.
Janosch Delcker is DW’s Chief Technology Correspondent
In authoritarian regimes, researchers, activists, and writers often use pseudonyms to protect their work, themselves, or those close to them.
And even in stable democracies like Germany, people find refuge in the anonymity of the Internet – whether they are victims of abuse seeking help; people struggling with addiction trying to find support; or queer teenagers looking for like-minded peers.
Forcing people to reveal their legal name makes it impossible to do so on social media.
What to do instead
To be clear: for too long, policymakers and law enforcement have done too little to address online hate, and that needs to change. But it is wrong to believe that anonymity is the problem.
Therefore, to be effective, response efforts must start elsewhere.
People need to understand that anything they say online can have the same consequences as in the analog world.
Law enforcement therefore needs to better monitor online platforms – not just social media giants like Facebook, but also smaller platforms like Telegram: just as police cars patrol neighborhoods, trained officers are needed to patrol relevant groups online. The announcement this week by the German Federal Police of the creation of a task force to investigate illegal content on Telegram seems to be a step in this direction.
And authorities must ensure that illegal and inflammatory messages are investigated and brought to justice. This is how you enforce the rule of law online, not by forcing people to reveal their full names.
The best German judges seem to have understood this.
The legal impact of their decision, to be fair, is limited: it only applies to old cases from before May 2018, when the new European data protection rules came into force.
But the signal they’re sending is clear, and it’s strong: online anonymity matters.