Germany’s top court ruled on Thursday that Facebook should give two parents access to their deceased daughter’s account.
Facebook had memorialised the account after the death of the 15-year-old girl in 2012 and would not let her parents log into her profile.
According to the court’s statement, the teenager died in “previously unexplained circumstances as a result of a subway accident” in Berlin.
Her parents wanted to be granted access to her Facebook communications to establish whether her death had been accidental or whether she had committed suicide.
Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that “the contract for a social network user account basically passes by way of universal succession to the heirs of the original account holder.”
As heirs, the parent therefore “have a claim against the network operator to access the account including the communication content held therein,” the court’s statement said.
The case highlighted how murky regulations regarding who owns an individual’s digital content after their death as a court initially ruled in favour of the parents before an appeals court sided with the social media platform.
A Facebook spokesman told German outlet Spiegel that the company “feel with the family, but at the same time we need to make sure that personal exchanges between people are protected on Facebook.
“We have a different position in terms of content, and the lengthy process shows just how complex the issue is,” the statement also said.
The German society of lawyers welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement that "now there is legal security for the heirs in the digital world as well."
Twitter user Ralph Janik wrote that the issue is "tricky."
"I'd be uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don't care because I wouldn't know anyway," he said.
Another Twitter user questioned Facebook's decision to withhold access, writing: "What right does Facebook have to become the guardian of the rights of others?"
Facebook's rules on deceased users
Facebook users can appoint a legacy contact who would then have access to their account after their death. That person can then look after the memorialised account or delete it.
If no legacy contact has been appointed by the user, Facebook memorialises the account when it becomes aware of the user’s passing.
Once memorialised, the account can’t be logged into and remains visible to the audience it was shared with as a place for them to “gather and share memories,” according to Facebook’s settings.