Facebook content is inheritable, German court rules

Physical assets can be inherited after death – but what about digital assets? A landmark ruling by a German court answers the question now.

German court ruling

Heirs in Germany have the right to access the Facebook accounts of their deceased relatives, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe ruled in a privacy ruling on Thursday, saying a social media account can be inherited in the same way as letters, reuters reports.

The case behind

The parents of a 15-year-old who died under unclear circumstances in 2012, wanted to look into her daughter’s Facebook account to look for indications whether her death has been an accident or suicide. Facebook – however – refused to grant them access to the account and turned the daughter’s page into a “memorialized account,” meaning the parents were not allowed to look through messages, even with their daughter’s password, handelsblatt global reports.

Facebook has to weigh different interests against each other

Facebook had argued that it had an obligation to respect the privacy of the accountholder and affected third parties.

“The question of how we should balance the wishes of relatives while protection the privacy of third parties is one of the most difficult that we have to face. The lengthy trial shows how complex the subject in question is”,

a Facebook spokesman said in response to the ruling, according to handelsblatt global.

A lower court had ruled in favor of granting the parents full access to their daughter’s account data. Judges at the court in Berlin had ruled that the contract between the deceased and Facebook was covered by inheritance law, including the digital content created on the account, thenews.com reports. Facebook appealed against that decision.

Impact of the decision

“Today’s verdict also affects other social media accounts, not just Facebook but Instagram and so on. So it’s a verdict with very far-reaching consequences,”

a Federal Court spokeswoman said.

Privacy campaigners welcomed the court ruling as a step toward regulating the “new land” of social networks and digital privacy.

“The ruling should be an impetus for German policymakers to regulate the digital estate,”

said Alex Fanta, a journalist at netzpolitik.org, according to reuters.

But not only policymakers need to act here; a recent survey by the German information technology association, Bitkom, showed that 49 percent of internet users said they did not care about what happens to their social media profiles after they die…

Please note that your comments will be published after review and approval by our administrator and not immediately after they have been posted. Please also see our Terms of Service and our Privacy Police.