A Berlin mother is suing Facebook at Germany’s superior court of justice this week to gain access to the Facebook account of her deceased teenage daughter. The girl died in a subway train accident five years ago, and her parents have been fighting for this key digital possession since then, arguing that they should inherit it in the same way that they did all of her analog belongings.
It’s Not Just About the Deceased
In a December 2015 trial, a Berlin district court ruled in favor of the parents, ordering Facebook to give them access to the account in its entirety. Facebook appealed the decision, arguing that it infringed on the rights of their other living users, who may have shared messages with the girl assuming that they would remain private forever.
Elke Brucker-Kley, a lecturer at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences wonders, “Is the platform operator even entitled to grant access? The dead person […] shared their data with the deceased, not with the relatives.”
What to Do Before You Die
On Facebook, any user who wants to setup contingencies may choose to either have their account “memorialized” or permanently deleted upon their death. Memorialized accounts maintain all of their original privacy settings, allowing your friends to post on your timeline, and adding the word “Remembering” next to your profile name.
Importantly, a memorialized account can no longer be controlled directly, which is the problem faced by the Berlin couple. Although they had their daughter’s password, the account was inaccessible.
Two years ago, Facebook also added the option to assign a “legacy contact” to your account, i.e., another Facebook user who could exercise basic control over your memorialized page, such as pinning a post to the top of your timeline. The legacy contact will not, however, be able to read any of your messages.
It contrasts sharply with Google’s own approach, which potentially hands over control of all of your emails and messages to your trusted contacts. The policy appears to be concerned only with the rights of the deceased, but does nothing to preserve the privacy of the users that they had corresponded with.
What to Do After You Die
Eterni.me goes beyond memorialization and aims to create interactive avatars based on its users’ digital content. Its founder, MIT fellow Marius Ursache, aims to create a “digital legacy that allows your great-grandchildren to interact with their great-grandfather — and beyond.”
Upon registering, the service scrapes your social media accounts and builds a profile based on your posts, using it to inform a chatbot that will simulate your personality after your death. The startup is currently in private beta.
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Images via Pixabay