Germany’s highest court ruled Thursday that personal Facebook profiles should be made accessible to people’s heirs after they’ve died.
A judge made the ruling as part of a case brought by the parents of a 15-year-old girl who died after being hit by a train in 2012, according to Reuters. The girl’s parents were told Facebook should grant them access to their daughter’s online profile, setting a legal precedent for future inheritance cases.
When someone dies, Facebook’s current policy is, locking it down but allowing people to still see it and pay tribute to its owner. The company allows users to nominate a legacy contact who can help manage the memorialized profile, but they cannot log in to the person’s profile or access any of their private information, including direct messages.
But now in Germany, thanks to Thursday’s ruling, personal Facebook data should be treated the same as personal letters and diaries and passed on to the heirs of the deceased.
“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,” said a Facebook spokesman in a statement. “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.”
In this particular case, the parents of the girl wanted access to the account in the hopes of establishing whether her death was a suicide. Not only would this provide them with closure, but would allow them to establish whether the driver of the train was entitled to compensation.
Facebook already appealed an earlier ruling on the case, which caused it to be transferred to Germany’s Federal Court of Justice prior to Thursday’s ruling. It’s not yet clear whether the company intends to do so again.
“While we respectfully disagree with today’s decision by the FCJ, the lengthy process shows how complex the issue under discussion is,” said the spokesman for Facebook. “We will be analyzing the judgment to assess its full implications.”
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