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Court Rules On What Happens To Facebook Profiles Of Deceased Users

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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A German court reportedly ruled Wednesday that parents of a deceased teenager do not have the right to access her Facebook account.

The ruling overturns a lower court’s decision from two years ago, which Facebook originally appealed. The verdict of the Berlin appeals court somewhat showcases how much Germany errs on the side of privacy.

The case specifically dealt with a 15-year-old girl who was struck and killed by a train in Berlin in 2012. The mother of the deceased teen wanted to gain access to her daughter’s profile to see if there were any signs of suicidal sentiments. Facebook, however, refused to grant her the ability to browse her daughter’s account. A Facebook spokesperson told The Daily Caller News Foundation (TheDCNF) that it offered the grieving parents a settlement in which it would redact all of the personally identifiable information (like names) from the communications, but they chose to decline.

The appeals court agreed with Facebook, saying that the right to private communications outweighs the right of to inheritance, reports Reuters.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision today,” a Facebook representative said. “We empathize with the family and are respectful of their wish. We are committed to trying to find solution that helps the family while protecting the privacy of others who might be affected.”

Once Facebook realizes that a person with a profile is dead, it alters the account to become “memorialized,” which restricts some but not all of its features and capabilities so that friends and relatives can still send their condolences and share memories.

“Please keep in mind that it’s always against the Facebook Terms to log into another person’s account,” the company’s help page reads. “We’ll only be able to give you access to an account if we can verify that it’s your own account.”

Facebook advises people to designate a person to be their legacy contact, which gives someone the ability to update profile pictures and cover photos, as well as pin a post. Legacy contacts do not have access to private data, according to Facebook. The only way someone would be able to gain access to an account, such as the parents of the deceased German teenager, is if they knew the password. (RELATED: Americans Split On If Police Should Be Able To Force You To Unlock Your Phones)

TheDCNF reached out to multiple experts who study and work in digital law, but there is very little, if any, American legal precedent for such a situation.

The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization, is pushing for states to adopt The Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or other similar legislation, which would mandate that people are given the right to have their digital possessions transferred properly and legally. While some forms of the law are enacted in different states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are often significant roadblocks to accomplish the transfer because internet services and websites have their own respective policies and terms-of-service agreements.

“Many IP lawyers and academics have argued that these licenses should be transferable the way physical media is (the legal term is ‘first sale doctrine’), meaning you should be able to leave it in your will,” Daniel Lyons, associate professor at Boston College Law School, told TheDCNF. “But the law has not adopted that position yet (unless the company for some reason gives the user that right as part of its terms of service).”

As Facebook grows in popularity, especially the platform’s use of broadcasting suicides, it is almost inevitable that this will eventually become such an ample point of contention in the U.S that a court will need to settle the matter.

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