BERLIN (Reuters) - Facebook may prevent its users from using fake names, a German court said on Thursday, overturning a previous order from the Hamburg data protection authority.
The ruling is a coup for the social network firm which has long argued its real-name policy ensures people know who they are sharing and connecting with and protects them from the abuse of the wide-open Internet.
The Hamburg data protection authority, which is responsible for policing Facebook in Germany, said last July that Facebook could not unilaterally change users' chosen usernames to their real names, nor could it ask them for official identification.
A woman had complained to the Hamburg watchdog after Facebook blocked her account for using a pseudonym, requested a copy of some identification and unilaterally changed her username to her real name.
Forcing users to stick to their real names violated their privacy rights, the watchdog said.
The Hamburg Administrative Court ruled Facebook did not have to implement the order for the time being since its European headquarters are in Ireland it should therefore only have to abide by Irish law.
Facebook welcomed the ruling.
"Our names policy protects privacy by ensuring that people know who they're sharing with and helping them manage their accounts safely," a company spokesperson said.
"The ruling also confirms the applicability of Irish data protection law to Facebook's service, agreeing with the other courts that have reviewed our policy."
In a December 2011 audit, the Irish privacy watchdog concluded Facebook's authentic name policy did not contravene Irish law and its reasons for the policy, such as child safety and the prevention of online harassment, were justified.
Privacy remains a sensitive issue in Germany due to extensive surveillance by Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police and by the Nazi era Gestapo. Memories of espionage were stirred anew by Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations of prying by the U.S. state.
(Reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Mark Potter and Adrian Croft)