What happens to our digital data after we’re gone? Recent legal proceedings surrounding the death of a 15-year-old German girl sought to sort out just that.
The girl was hit and killed by a train in 2012, and her parents have spent years in court seeking to gain access to her Facebook account in the hope of determining whether or not her death was a suicide. This information, if it exists, could also determine whether the train’s conductor is entitled to compensation in the case. If the death was in fact a suicide, the conductor would be absolved of blame for the incident and his innocence could benefit him financially.
On July 12, Germany’s highest court, the BGH, ruled in favor of the parents. Judge Ulrich Hermann decreed that they be given the same access to her profile and private messages as legal heirs are normally given to other forms of private correspondence (letters, books, diaries) following an individual’s death.
This is the end of a lengthy legal battle for the girl’s parents. In 2015, a lower court also found Facebook data to be equivalent to private correspondence. However, in 2017, an appeals court sided with Facebook, saying that any “contract” between the platform and the teenager died with her and so could not be given to her parents.
Facebook had contested the parents’ claim to their daughter’s account in an apparent effort to preserve the privacy of the girl’s personal Facebook contacts. Currently, the access Facebook provides to family members after a loved one’s death is heavily restricted. Relatives are only allowed two choices unless they’ve been named a “legacy contact”: either turn the deceased’s page into a memorial or have it deleted.
Legacy contacts are given more freedom with the deceased’s account, although access is still fairly limited. In addition to being able to delete or memorialize the page, they can also accept friend requests, change the profile picture, and pin notable posts to the top of the user’s profile. In a recent update to Facebook policies, parents or guardians of minors can become legacy contacts in the event of their child’s death.
The only other (and far more complex) way to pry information from Facebook is to obtain a court order, and even then the proceedings may not work out in the family’s favor.
A spokesperson for Facebook stated his regrets after the BGH’s ruling: “These questions — how to weigh the wishes of the relatives and protect the privacy of third parties – are some of the toughest we’ve confronted. We empathize with the family. At the same time, Facebook accounts are used for a personal exchange between individuals, which we have a duty to protect. While we respectfully disagree with today’s decision by [the court], the lengthy process shows how complex the issue under discussion is. We will be analyzing the judgment to assess its full implications.”
As the amount of personal data each person uploads onto the internet throughout his or her life increases, the matter of who is granted access to that information after we’ve passed on becomes more pressing. Unlike physical possessions, company privacy policies must be taken into account when attempting to access the digital data people leave behind after they’re gone. Right now, the most practical step you can take is to name a legacy account and to share your password with the loved ones you wish to be in charge of your account.
How do you think social media platforms should handle an account after the user’s death? Do you think digital assets can be inherited in the same way as physical assets?