European lawmakers and American technology companies rarely make good bedfellows, particularly when it comes to matters of privacy. That tension has been tested time and again in courts around the EU, with Germany proving particularly critical of U.S. companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook.

The latest challenge centers on the latter, as a prosecutor in Hamburg takes issue with Facebook’s haphazard ban on pseudonyms.


German privacy laws are closely tied to European Union law and regulators have a strong desire to standardize requirements across the country, as well as other member states in the long-term.

Other German regulators have tried to remove this requirement in the past, but Facebook has avoided these attempts by falling back on Irish privacy law, where regulators are less motivated to pursue the company because it is a major employer in Dublin. Ireland examined the privacy concerns over real names in 2011 and okayed the policy, despite the potential conflict with wider European law.

Since then, Google’s loss in the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling has changed the landscape. Forcing privacy requirements upon one tech company but not other major players has given regulators in Germany renewed motivation to call on Facebook to remove the requirement.

Despite the obvious tension between European regulators and U.S. tech companies, opposition to Facebook’s policy has not been limited to the other side of the Atlantic.

Here at home, the company’s real names policy is the subject of criticism by diverse groups, from indigenous populations whose names Facebook’s algorithm has a tendency to reject, to intergender individuals who identify themselves in a variety of ways. In either case, the social network is accused of being insensitive to personal preference and our right to choose how we identify ourselves online.

These ongoing privacy questions are par for the course for Facebook, which is regularly challenged on the data it collects from users and how it parlays that information into advertising profits. Last year, the social network was taken to task over its emotional experiments with what it selects for our newsfeeds, and earlier this month we reported on an algorithm the company is developing to recognize faces when they are only partially visible or obscured.

Even with all of these distractions, however, Facebook is going from strength to strength on the stock market. Its quarterly results, announced yesterday, continue to show the kind of consistent growth that keeps investors coming back for more. That being the bottom line, it seems likely that Facebook will continue to deflect such challenges until someone finds grounds to elevate the matter to the European Court of Justice, as was the case with Google.

Whether or not opponents in either country succeed in repealing real names will come down to the courts, but given the size and reach of the popular social network, any decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the way social networks ask users to identify themselves online.