Facebook Refuses Bereaved Parents' Plea

John Lister's picture

A German court has upheld Facebook's refusal to let the parents of a deceased girl access her private messages. It's the latest attempt to deal with the tricky balance of dealing with social network history after people die.

The sheer number of people on Facebook means that users dying has become a significant issue. An estimated 10,000 users die each day and more than 30 million have already passed away.

Facebook deals with the issue by "memorializing" accounts. Once it has seen credible evidence that a person has died, it can put the account into a special mode in which friends can continue to post messages such as condolences or memories, but the user won't show up as a suggested friend or on birthday reminders. Close family members can instead ask for the account to be deleted completely, but this can be overridden if the user left instructions with Facebook.

Girl May Have Been Bullied

Once memorialized, the account can no longer be logged into. This means that non-public account details, including chat messages, become invisible.

The court case involved the parents of a 15-year-old girl who died in 2012 after being hit by a train. The parents believe she may have been bullied and taken her own life, and that seeing her private messages might give more insight. Facebook said that wasn't possible once the account was memorialized.

A lower court in Germany agreed with the parents and ruled that the messages should be treated as part of the girl's estate, in the same way as a handwritten diary, and thus be passed on to her parents. (Source: theguardian.com)

Recipients Didn't Give Consent

An appeals court has now ruled that the inheritance issue isn't relevant. It said the real issue was giving consent to access the messages, which is required under German telecommunications laws. The appeals court said it was questionable whether the parents had the right to give consent on behalf of their deceased child. In any case, the court ruled that the people the girl exchanged the messages with had not given their consent, so there was no way the messages could be made accessible.

This may not be the final word as there is an option to appeal to one higher court in Germany. (Source: zdnet.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you agree with the court decision? Should online messages be treated in the same way as written letters when it comes to posthumous privacy? If you use sites like Facebook, have you given any thought to what happens to your account after your death?

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Dennis Faas's picture

In the article it says that Facebook wouldn't reveal the messages without consent from other users. I don't feel this is proper. If the girl owned the account and if the parents were her legal guardians (which they were) then they should have every right to look at her account. Also, the argument that once an account is 'memorialized' and can't be undone is likely untrue. Facebook is notorious for keeping data for the purpose of advertising and connecting people based on interests (for the purpose of advertising), plus it doesn't take much hard drive space to store account data.

albre1432_9420's picture

I agree. My opinion is based on the fact she is a minor. Also, often believe Facebook goes beyond our legal rights & this is w/o the
concern that should be placed on a situation of this type. Dear Lord, she is so young & her parents are grieving.

DLStoehner's picture

Facebook accounts should have co-owners (the parents) if the child is under a certain age. Sometimes another party needs to see what the child is posting...

hrleno's picture

It seems to me that Facebook can do what ever it wants with its data. It never charged anyone to use their service, people know what they post is in the public domain (regardless of how many or few can access and read it) so there is no hint of privacy. Seems they have no basis for controlling that data. If they wanted to, they should have gotten the password from their 15 year old daughter beforehand. That way they wouldn't be going through this mess.

jim.361036_9312's picture

I agree, the parents should have the right to see the messages. If for no other reason than closure.
Yet that brings up another issue of liabilty from the messages' content and the identities of the authors of those messages.

"the court ruled that the people the girl exchanged the messages with had not given their consent"

Were 'the people,' ever specifically asked for their consent?

If so, perhaps there was a reason they did not give consent. Maybe these messages would incriminate them?

spiras's picture

...what if the girl had a secret which she shared via Facebook with just one friend? Do her parents have the right in her lifetime to access that secret? No? Then why do they have that right AFTER her death? They do not inherit her privacy. And if a criminal issue is involved, then the police can ask the courts for a search warrant, not her parents.

matt_2058's picture

Geez, keep this stuff simple. Once it gets a little squirrely, there's no reigning it back in. If there's a possibility there was a violation (bullying in this case), the the court needs to allow discovery.....NOT necessarily release to the public.

I believe the courts just need to get back to basics. Is the parent 'responsible' for the child's actions? If so, then the parent should be given access. Next, the role of the online service should be held to that, a service, not an owner of private messages. With that, if anyone can own a deceased person's property (msgs), shouldn't it be the parents in absence of a Will with specific allocation of digital assets?

I can't agree with the court that the other individuals involved have a right to privacy concerning messages sent to the deceased. Soooo, does that mean that if an individual involved makes public ANY message from the deceased, the individual can be held accountable for violation of privacy since the deceased, or heirs, did not consent to release?

russoule's picture

I'm a parent and if my child were to die, regardless of how or why, I would expect my minor child's "data" to be mine. If there were messages on paper in my child's school locker, I would be entitled to them. If my child had messages saved on his/her cellphone, I would be entitled to them.

The reason I would be entitled is that MY CHILD WAS A MINOR AND AS SUCH HIS/HER POSSESSIONS ARE MINE. The minor child cannot make an enforceable contract because of that legal position. Now it is very possible that this legal position is not part of Germany's laws, but it should be since a minor child does not have the wherewithal to complete contracts, in most cases.

The exception to the above rule is a minor child that has been "emancipated" through a court proceeding. And in that case, the parents would truly be third parties to any estate.

Facebook is again attempting to separate underage children from their parental controls with this situation, just like their "You must be 13" without any way of proving that age. SHAME!