Facebook must grant a grieving mother access to her late daughter’s profile and private messages on the social network, Germany’s highest court has ruled.
In a landmark judgment for the treatment of social media data after its owner’s death, Germany’s constitutional court in Karlsruhe ruled on Thursday that parents can inherit the contract between their child and a social media platform in the same way they would be able to inherit physical documents such as diaries and private letters.
“From an inheritance law view, there is no reason to treat digital content differently,” the court said in a statement.
The woman at the centre of the case has been engaged in a years-long legal battle with the internet company over access to the account of her daughter, who was killed by a train at a station in Berlin in 2012.
With police unable to determine whether the 15-year-old’s death was an accident or whether she killed herself, the woman had tried to access her daughter’s Facebook profile to look at her posts and private messages.
The circumstances of the death also have a bearing on a compensation claim by the driver of the subway train involved in the incident for immaterial damage.
The parents said they had a password to their daughter’s account because she had shared it with them in return for being allowed to open one when she was 14. But when trying to log into the account they found the profile had been put into “memorialised” mode.
According to Facebook’s terms and conditions, “memorialised accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away”, with the word “remembering” shown next to the person’s name on their profile.
Citing data protection laws, Facebook had refused to allow the woman to access the girl’s profile, despite a Berlin court ruling in her favour in December 2015.
After an appeal by Facebook, Berlin’s highest state court sided with the company in May 2017, which left open whether parents would still be able to read their offspring’s messages but not the replies of other users.
The judgment on Thursday, which annuled the 2017 ruling, made clear that data protection laws in this case did not cover the deceased.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook in Germany said the case had revealed the complex challenges of data protection: “We feel [for] the family. At the same time we have to ensure that personal exchanges between people on Facebook are protected. We represented a different position in this dispute, and the drawn-out court case shows how complex the matter is in legal terms.”