Is it legitimate to use an alias on Facebook?


Is it legitimate to use an alias on Facebook?

Wednesday, 8 January, 2020

Facebook unjustly requires users to sign up with their legal name.

Consumer advocates in Germany have sued Facebook in front of the Berlin court for violating the German privacy policy. At first instance, the Berlin court agreed with consumer advisors and convicted Facebook of violating data protection guidelines (AZ 16 O 341/15, the judgment is open to appeal). Facebook’s terms and conditions, which are overlooked by many users, state that users must log on to Facebook with their true legal name. As claimed by the Berlin court this provision violates the German Telemedia Act, according to which every user of an online service is free to register with their real name or with an alias if they wish.

As defined by the German Telemedia Act, users may at any time use the Internet "anonymously or under a pseudonym, as long as this is technically possible and reasonable". However, this special German law on anonymous use of the Internet is now repealed by the General Data Protection Regulation, which was enforced throughout the European Union in May of this year. The EU General Data Protection Regulation does not give users the right to anonymously use a service offered on the Internet, nor does it require, however, that a user must always log in to that service with their legal name. It is regrettable that the new EU-wide rules are less specific than the former German Telemedia Act.

The German judges also found that other clauses in the general terms and conditions of Facebook were unlawful: For example, the user’s default agreement to these terms and conditions is unlawful because it allows Facebook exploit its users’ names and profile pictures for "commercial, sponsored and related content". The court found that Facebook did not provide sufficient clear and understandable information as to how they intend to use profile data. Also, when a user downloads the Facebook app on a mobile phone it automatically grants Facebook access to the phone’s tracking service, which may be used by the app immediately. This also disagrees with the admissible general terms, according to the German court.

Only in one case the judges agreed on Facebook acting correctly, contrary to the opinion of the consumer advocates: Facebook may continue to advertise that it offers its service for free. Consumer advocates have argued that users actually pay Facebook with their personal data and thus making the service not free. The court ruled, however, that data transfer is not a payment in the true sense of the word, making it continuously legal for Facebook to advertise its’ service as free of use. Facebook took the decision as an opportunity to incorporate the privacy policy into the terms and conditions.

Dr Christoph Kerres LLM (Georgetown)

For more legal information please contact Mr Kerres via tel +43 (1) 516 60 or e-mail

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