Mother can't access deceased daughter's Facebook account

A court rejected a mother's demand that Facebook grant her access to her deceased daughter's account.
DADO RUVIC/REUTERS

A court rejected a mother's demand that Facebook grant her access to her deceased daughter's account.

The internet can be an unruly place. Among the profiles on social media are real people, fake characters, bots, and a growing legion of ghosts: accounts of those who have passed with nobody at the helm.

Who becomes responsible for these digital legacies, and what should be done with them is yet to be clearly defined.

It is the social media platforms themselves that have become their strange custodians by default, but they are being challenged in this new role.

The issue came to light this week when a German court rejected a mother's demand that Facebook grant her access to her deceased daughter's account.

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In the ruling, which overturned a lower court's decision, the Berlin appeals court said the right to private telecommunications extended to electronic communication that was meant only for the eyes of certain people.

The mother of a 15-year-old who was hit and killed by a subway train in Berlin in 2012 had sought access to her daughter's account to search for clues as to whether the girl had committed suicide.

Facebook had refused access to the account, which had been memorialised, meaning it was effectively locked and served as a message board for friends and family to share memories.

"Our standard procedure when we receive a report that a user is deceased is to memorialise the account, which restricts profile and search privacy to friends only, but leaves the profile up so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance," a spokesperson from Facebook said.

Facebook policies are global, meaning they apply in Germany and New Zealand alike, even though the platform is being prosecuted under local laws.

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In the recent case, a regional court in Berlin had ruled in favour of the mother in late 2015, saying that the daughter's contract with Facebook passed to her parents according to German laws on inheritance.

It had also said that the girl's right to privacy was not protected because she was a minor and it was up to her parents to protect her rights.

The appeals court, however, said that the right to private telecommunications outweighed the right to inheritance, and that the parents' obligation to protect their daughter's rights expired with her death.

In 2015 Facebook introduced the legacy contact policy, in which users can opt to give permission to a legacy contact that is able to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information they shared on Facebook, but not log in as the person who passed away or see that person's private messages. 

But with a slow take up, Facebook remains in control of most legacy accounts.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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