Dead girl’s parents blocked from accessing her Facebook account

Couple in Berlin who were seeking clues to 15-year-old daughter’s death lose case

Facebook has made some changes to its “in memoriam” feature, giving a named third party access to their account after their death – but that third party’s rights are limited. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Facebook has made some changes to its “in memoriam” feature, giving a named third party access to their account after their death – but that third party’s rights are limited. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

Facebook was correct to block, on data protection grounds, a German woman’s access to the account of her dead daughter, a Berlin court has ruled.

Five years ago a Berlin couple learned that their 15-year-old daughter died after being struck by an underground train in the German capital.

Although police closed the case as a suicide, the couple demanded the US social media company grant them access to their daughter’s account in a hunt for clues to her death.

In particular they were anxious to find out if, on the basis of her Facebook posts and chat exchanges, they could deduce whether she had been bullied or had been depressed.

After a friend of the girl informed Facebook of her death, however, the company froze the account in “memoriam” mode, blocking access and any new posts.

Although the daughter had given her mother her log-in details when she was 14, Facebook refused the mother’s request to unlock the account. The company argued that to do so would breach data protection rules and the right to privacy of third parties who chatted with their daughter on the assumption that their communications would remain private.

The woman sued Facebook and, in 2015, a Berlin court ruled in her favour. The daughter’s Facebook profile, the court argued then, came into the same category as diaries and letters, all of which were now the property of her parents.

Facebook appealed this ruling and, on Wednesday, Berlin district court ruled in the company’s favour.

‘Digital inheritance’

The high-profile German ruling, overturning the lower court’s decision, raises fresh questions about a contested issue: the rights of families and partners of the deceased to manage their loved ones’ “digital inheritance”.

“Everything is wide open, it is very interesting,” said Matthias Rösler, president of the German Inheritance Forum, to Spiegel Online.

Since the Berlin woman died in 2012, Facebook has made some changes to its “in memoriam” feature, which allows friends post public tributes and farewell messages.

Now it is possible for Facebook users during their lifetime to grant a third party – a family member or friend – access to their account after their death. But this third party’s rights are limited: they can change the profile photo or react to friend requests, but they still cannot read old chat exchanges – the issue at stake in the Berlin court case.

In their ruling on Wednesday the Berlin district court judges had to weigh up inheritance laws from 1900 and the rights of parents towards minor children, against postwar telecommunications privacy and more recent data protection law.

In their ruling the judges said that, while the contract agreed between Facebook and a user holds for that user’s heirs, regulations governing privacy and telecommunications of third persons carried a higher weight before the law.

This is not the last word on the matter, however, with the parents of the dead girl considering a final appeal to Germany’s federal court in Karlsruhe.