Parents lose appeal over access to dead girl's Facebook account
Anuj Malhotra 6 Jun 2017

Parents lose appeal over access to dead girl's Facebook account

The parents of a dead 15-year-old who appealed to facebook to allow them access to her account to see if she was being bullied before her death have lost their claim in court.

Berlin’s court of appeal ruled on Wednesday that the parents of the teenager, who died in 2012 after falling in front of an underground train, had no claim to access her details or chat history.

The ruling goes against the decision made in an initial judgment by the regional court in 2015. It raises fresh questions over digital inheritance and who has the right to manage someone’s online presence and intellectual property when they die.

The court said it had made the ruling according to the telecommunications secrecy law which precludes heirs from viewing the communications of a deceased relative with a third party.

The family have said they are desperate to find out whether the girl’s death in Berlin was suicide and, if so, whether it was the consequence of online bullying.

They have said they want Facebook to allow access to chats she might have had online which might provide a clue as to the cause of their daughter’s unexpected death.

The girl had reportedly given her mother the login details to her account when she was 14 but the company, having been informed of the girl’s death by one of her Facebook friends, froze or “memorialised” her account. The move meant that photos and posts the girl had shared remained visible, and friends could pay tribute to her, but it was no longer possible to log in to the account.

Facebook has refused to say who applied for the account to be frozen, also citing data protection. The person who lodged the request would have had to provide Facebook with proof that the girl had died.

The US social media company has repeatedly rejected the parents’ request, arguing that in the event messages from a user are revealed, other users would also be exposed. They argue that the conversations would have taken place on the understanding that their content remained private.

In its 2015 ruling, Berlin’s regional court ruled in favour of the mother, arguing that the contents of the daughter’s Facebook account should be owned by her heirs. The judge insisted then that Facebook chats should be regarded no differently to the girl’s letters and diaries which her parents automatically inherited. Facebook appealed against that ruling, which is why the case was heard by the court of appeal.

The ruling on Wednesday was based on weighing up inheritance laws drawn up almost 120 years ago and the rights of parents towards minors, with the telecommunications secrecy law introduced to protect the privacy of telephone conversations which was updated by the constitutional court in 2009 to include emails.

Björn Retzlaff, the judge who ruled in Berlin, deemed that the same rules applied to internet chats. “That is at the centre of our decision,” Retzlaff told the court, stressing at the same time that the decision had been a difficult one.

In a statement in German to the media Facebook said it welcomed the ruling, adding: “At the same time we are sympathetic towards the family and respect their wish. We are making every effort to find a solution which helps the family at the same time as protecting the privacy of third parties who are also affected by this.”

The case recalls that of an Italian architect who appealed to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, last year to unblock his dead 13-year-old son’s iPhone so he could download the photographs stored on it.

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