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Online anonymity matters

Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker
January 27, 2022

Germany's top judges were right to decide that users should be able to post under pseudonyms on Facebook. The ruling's legal impact might be limited — but it sends out a strong signal, writes DW's Janosch Delcker.

A finger scrolls through a mobile phone with Facebook on it
Authorities have struggled to curb online hate speechImage: MD Mehedi Hasan/Zuma/picture alliance

No, Facebook should not get to decide if 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 had been wrong to suspend the accounts of two German users back in 2018, because they did not use their legal names.

It was a wise decision and it sends out a strong signal: The problem of hate circulating online is real — but forcing people to use their full names will not solve it.

What's worse, such obligations can end up harming some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Collateral damage

The debate over whether people should have to disclose their names online is as old as the internet.

Proponents like Facebook argue that this makes people take more responsibility for what they say.

But whether that is true remains disputed. And even if — and that's a big "if" — such a real-name policy deters some users from posting hateful and illegal content, the damage still outweighs the benefits.

Portrait of Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker is DW's chief technology correspondent Image: Privat

In authoritarian regimes, researchers, activists and writers often rely on pseudonyms to protect their work, themselves or their relatives. 

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 disclose their legal name makes it impossible to do that on social media.

What to do instead

To be clear: For too long, policymakers and law enforcement have done too little to fight hate online, and this needs to change. But it is wrong to believe that anonymity causes the problem.

That is why, to be effective, efforts to fight back need to start elsewhere.

People need to understand that everything they say online can have the same consequences as in the analog world.

Law enforcement, therefore, needs to get better at monitoring online platforms — not just social media giants like Facebook, but also smaller platforms like Telegram: Just like police cars patrol neighborhoods, there need to be skilled officers patrolling relevant groups online. This week's announcement by Germany's federal police to set up a task force to investigate illegal content on Telegram seems like a step in that direction.

And authorities have to make sure that illegal and incendiary posts are investigated and brought to justice. That is how you enforce the rule of law online — not by forcing people to disclose their full names.

Germany's top judges seem to have understood that.

The legal impact of their ruling, to be fair, is limited: It applies only to old cases before May 2018, when new European data protection rules took effect.

But the signal they are sending out is clear, and it is a strong one: Online anonymity matters.

Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker Janosch Delcker is based in Berlin and covers the intersection of politics and technology.@JanoschDelcker