Facebook has won a rare victory in the German courts, in a case that unusually saw the social networking giant relying on privacy law to back it up.
The case is reportedly the first in the country to deal with the question of whether Facebook accounts can be inherited. It centered on an unnamed, 15-year-old girl who died in 2012 after being hit by a Berlin subway train.
The girl’s parents wanted to know whether she might have committed suicide, so they wanted to gain access to her Facebook account to check her chat messages, in case she’d been bullied. The mother had her login details.
However, a friend of the girl’s had notified Facebook when she died, so the platform put her account into a ‘memorial’ state that limited what information her family could see. The family took Facebook to court, in an attempt to force it to let them see her chat records.
Two years ago, a Berlin district court sided with the girl’s mother, ruling that the girl’s contract with Facebook was part of her inheritable estate, as her letters and diaries would have been. Facebook appealed, and on Wednesday the Berlin appeals court took its side.
The court said it was not making any decision about whether or not the girl’s Facebook account could pass to her parents under German inheritance law. Facebook’s contract itself made no mention of the possibility. Whether or not this was the case, the court said, German privacy law made it impossible.
Germany’s telecom act was originally intended to protect the privacy of phone calls, but the federal constitutional court ruled in 2009 that it covers emails as well.
The Berlin appeals court reckons it extends to Facebook chats too, so the girl’s messages could only be accessed under specific circumstances, such as technical necessity, which doesn’t apply here, and the consent of those involved in the communications.
Even leaving aside the debatable question of whether the girl’s posthumous consent could be wielded by her parents, there was no consent from the people with whom she’d been chatting, so her messages had to remain secret.
The ruling may still be appealed in the federal courts, so it’s possible that the case isn’t over yet. In the meantime, though, the issue of digital inheritance remains unresolved in Germany, and the girl’s privacy, and that of her online correspondents, remains protected even in her death.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision today. 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,” Facebook said.