Facebook FAIL: ID mixup leads to lawsuit

An established German company named Merck in the 1880s sent one of its chemists to New York to import drugs to the American market and capitalize on the fast-growing economy. Things went so well that just ten years later they began to look for ways to avoid high import tariffs and manufacture drugs in America; by 1900 they expanded operations into the remote and open space of New Jersey.

The company then was caught up in the divisiveness of WWI. German companies on U.S. soil, including Merck, were confiscated and auctioned to American owners. German Merck became a completely separate and distinct entity from Merck operations in America due to the terms of reconciliation and the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. After the forced split the American company eventually grew to be much larger than the German Merck.

Fastforward to today’s news. Facebook staff made the extremely awkward, if not completely ignorant, decision to hand the American Merck control over a page setup by the German Merck.

Facebook Inc said on Monday that it made a mistake in letting Merck & Co take over a page on the social networking website from its German rival Merck KGaA.

The takeover prompted an unusual November 21 filing by Merck KGaA with a New York state court.

In it, Merck KGaA sought to force Facebook to explain how it lost the page, www.facebook.com/merck, and the ability to administer it to Merck & Co, a separate company.


“The transfer of the vanity URL Facebook.com/Merck from Merck KGaA to Merck & Co was due to an administrative error,” Facebook said in a statement. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

This issue of impersonation is one of the most difficult problems in identity management, to be fair. How many John Smiths are there on Facebook and what can Facebook really depend upon to distinguish them as unique users? I mean which Budweiser brewer is the real one?

More to the point, how can a provider tell husband access from wife, or parent from child? The courts are usually the best answer. If a divorce court rules that a wife gets the shared Facebook account, then Facebook will have some justification to act.

This case is odd because Facebook apparently made a decision without authority to favor the American company over the German one.

Users need assurance that a company like Facebook, entrusted with sensitive data, can handle this kind of situation without making an historic blunder. Merck is lucky to have the legal team and resources to file a formal complaint but it begs the question how many similar mistakes are being made at a lower profile. It also begs whether Facebook staff do even the most basic review or follow a transparent and monitored process before taking action.

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