Germany Cracks Down on Facebook

July 18, 2018
Lindsay M. Schoeneberger

This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog article about Facebook’s New Legacy Contact, wherein you can appoint someone to manage your account posthumously. When you fail to appoint someone, Facebook’s current policy allows your next of kin to only have partial access to the account in order to either turn it into an online memorial page or to delete it entirely.

It seems that the highest court in Germany has taken issue with this limited access for a legacy contact, having recently determined that a minor’s parents have the right to inherit their daughter’s Facebook account.  The parents of a 15 year old girl who passed away in 2012 sought access to her Facebook account in order to determine if her death was suicide.  Facebook refused, citing their Legacy Contact policy and concern for the privacy of the girl’s other contacts.  The Federal Court of Justice in Germany held that the account was similar to a person’s letters or private diary, both of which would pass on to a person’s heirs under German law.

While no similar case has been heard in the United States, it seems likely to only be a matter of time. The concept of privacy is ever changing.  What is protected now may not be in the future.  As privacy concerns grow and the debate over how digital data is stored, used, and protected rages on, I’m inspired to take action.  Recognizing that once something is out there, it is hard to truly delete it, I continue to monitor my social media accounts.  I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want an employer to see.  I don’t engage in private messaging through social media platforms that I wouldn’t want my mother to see.  And, despite having written my first post about the Facebook Legacy Contact over three years ago, I just filled mine out today.  It is very simple to do.  Go to your General Account Settings, Manage Account, and the Legacy Contact should be right on top.  I chose to appoint my fiancé.  Facebook sent him a message explaining what I had done.  In keeping with my original advice, I spoke to him about it beforehand so he was not surprised when he received the message.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.