Facebook should scrap its real-name rule

Hamburg data protection supervisor Johannes Caspar is after Facebook again: He wants it to scrap its real-name-only policy. His demand provides an interesting perspective on Ellen Pao's battle with anonymous trolls on Reddit and her subsequent dismissal as interim chief executive officer of the online platform.

Each of Germany's 16 federal states has an official who, like Caspar, is charged with making sure local companies and government bodies follow data privacy laws. In 2013, Caspar forced Google to disclose the kinds of personal data it was collecting in the city of Hamburg, and fined the company $189,225 -- not much for the search company but close to the maximum allowed by German law. His findings, however, did more damage to Google than the paltry fine, triggering investigations in other countries.

Now, he's taking on Facebook's policy of requiring users to register under their real names, a practice Caspar's colleagues have long condemned as illegal. Indeed, the German Telemedia Act says: “The service provider must enable the use of telemedia and payment for them to occur anonymously or via a pseudonym where this is technically possible and reasonable. The recipient of the service is to be informed about this possibility.”

In 2012, the data protection supervisor of Schleswig- Holstein in the north of Germany already tried to declare the policy illegal. Facebook, however, got a court to suspend the ruling, arguing that its European headquarters was in Ireland and it only had to follow Irish privacy laws, which don't provide for obligatory anonymity.

Germany's privacy laws are, indeed, stricter than most countries', a reaction to pervasive domestic spying under the Nazis and the Communists. Caspar insists Facebook is going to have to follow them this time around. “Anyone who stands on our pitch also has to play our game,” Bloomberg quoted him as saying.

Caspar acted on the complaint of a woman who said she didn't want to get work-related inquiries on her personal Facebook account, so she used a pseudonym until Facebook changed the account to her real name and asked her to present proof of identity. Facebook does that from time to time: It even changed the name on author Salman Rushdie's account to “Ahmed Rushdie,” as on his passport. Facebook employees relented only after the writer called them “morons” on Twitter.

But if Caspar has his way, it will be difficult for global Internet companies to fight anonymous trolls who bully, harass and spout all kinds of offensive things. In the U.S., a court can force websites to reveal the identities of anonymous commenters, yet websites themselves don't always know everyone's true identity. Besides, some U.S. states protect anonymous speech on the Internet the way they protect reporters' sources. Yet that's not the same level of blanket protection that Caspar is seeking on behalf of Germans, an important market for Internet companies.

One could say Caspar's legalistic approach will open the floodgates for the kind of harassment Pao tried to curb at Reddit before powerful users forced her out -- and the kind of free-speech abuses her successor, Steve Huffman, is working to restrict. Yet, as Huffman pointed out, “no company is perfect at addressing these hard issues.” It's impossible to be perfect simply because there's no effective way to erase anonymous comments as quickly as they appear. And an estimated 170 million Facebook accounts are fake -- a number that keeps growing with the company itself, despite its efforts to enforce the real-name policy. The social network is fighting a losing battle: I, for one, have to deal with fake-name trolls on Facebook every day.

There is no way to ban anonymity in countries with privacy and free-speech protections in place. Only an authoritarian country like China can get away with it. Nor is there an effective technical method of weeding out trolls. Therefore, it makes sense for Facebook to agree with Caspar and scrap its unenforceable policy.

On the other hand, it also makes sense for Facebook and other online platforms to give users a chance to verify their accounts -- the way it's done for some accounts on Twitter. People who feel strongly about posting under their own names will go through with it, presenting some form of identification. Others will remain in the anonymous layer with the same privileges as verified users -- but everybody will know that anything can be expected of them: racist and sexist remarks, swearing, bullying, extreme views.

There is no way to shield oneself against that kind of unpleasantness from real-world strangers or, say, vandals who leave their messages on walls. In a two-tier system, anonymous trolls will be reduced to the status of nasty strangers. Even now, the healthy reaction is to ignore or ban them, but with verification available, there will be no reason at all to treat trolls as people. They will be fair game.

• Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.

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