Parents Have Right to Access Dead Daughter's Facebook Account, German Court Rules

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In what could be a precedent-setting case, Germany's Federal Court of Justice ruled that Facebook cannot use privacy claims or user agreement contracts to prevent heirs from accessing social media accounts.

In a major blow to Facebook, Germany's Federal Court of Justice on Thursday ruled that the parents of a deceased teenager can access the information on their daughter's social media account.

The parents of the 15-year-old, who was hit and killed by a train in Berlin in 2012, asked Facebook for access to their daughter's account, which the company locked, citing privacy reasons, both for the daughter and people she may have communicated with.

The parents said they wanted to see if their daughter's death was a suicide or an accident. As well as seeking emotional closure, court documents show the parents hope the information contained in their daughter's account will clear up whether the train driver is owed compensation as he might be if her death was suicide.

A lower court initially backed the parents' claim, but Facebook successfully appealed. On Thursday, the federal court upheld the initial ruling, saying a social media account can be inherited just as letters are.

Facebook had turned the girl's profile into a "memorial page," where access to the user data is not possible but the content still exists on Facebook servers.

Thursday's ruling could have broader implications for how Facebook and other social media platforms operate in Germany, as it states that online user contracts are covered by national inheritance law and that digital content created by a user does not remain the property of the online platform following that user's death.