German federal court clarifies scope of postmortem access to social media accounts

The Federal Court of Justice of Germany (BGH) clarified the scope of access to the Facebook account of a deceased individual in a decision. In July 2018, the BGH made a decision that stated that user agreements for social media accounts are inheritable, thus parents of the deceased user must be given the same access rights as the original user. In response to this decision, Facebook provided a USB flash drive with a PDF document that contains the unstructured account data of the deceased user to the plaintiffs, the parents of a 15-year-old girl who was killed by an incoming train. The parties disputed whether this action by Facebook fulfilled its obligation to the defendant.

The BGH ruled that ‘providing access’ to the user account of a deceased must allow the plaintiffs to access the account and its content in the same way as the deceased, with the exception of actively inputting content. The court clarified that ‘accessing’ does not mean merely transferring the content of the account to the plaintiffs. Therefore, access to the account is inadequate; Facebook must enable the plaintiffs to access the account itself.