A German high court ventured into a gray area regarding digital assets after ruling that virtual possessions should be passed on to legal heirs in the same way physical assets do. The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, the country’s highest court for ordinary legal matters, handed down the ruling in a case involving the Facebook account of a deceased teenager.
The 15-year-old died under unclear circumstances in 2012, and the parents wanted to look through her Facebook account for clues as to whether it was an accident or suicide. But the social networking platform had 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.
The case touches on the knotty question of what happens to social networking accounts, emails, or other digital assets, like cryptocurrencies, in the case of death. The German court ruled that just like diaries, letters and other possessions, these digital belongings should be passed on to the heirs.
Inheritance law applies to digital content
Facebook had contended that it had an obligation to respect the privacy of the accountholder. “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,” a Facebook spokesman said in response to the ruling. “The lengthy trial shows how complex the subject in question is.”
The ruling gives heirs more rights vis-à-vis the network platforms. “The general principles of inheritance law apply to heirs,” said Alexander Niethammer from the law firm Eversheds Sutherland. “Once they have been authenticated, they can take full access to the digital content.”
Decedents must now specify in their wills if they don’t want heirs to get their hands on the digital material, Mr. Niethammer said. Additionally, Facebook and other network operators may have to update their business practices on how they authenticate heirs.
Facebook currently allows users to designate a “legacy contact” and encourages them to do so. This individual can manage the memorialized account and pin posts about memorial services. If specified by the user, this contact can also download shared content, but cannot change content, read messages or remove friends. Users can also specify that they want their account deleted upon their death.
Digital living wills
People in general don’t like to think about death or make provisions for it, and this extends to digital content and assets, said Susanne Dehmel at digital industry group Bitkom. A survey conducted by the firm found eight out of 10 had done nothing with regard to disposition of the digital assets after death. However, the association also found that three-quarters of those surveyed would like to see similar legal provisions for digital assets like those in place for physical objects.
Entrepreneurs noted this gap even before the court ruling. Albert Brückmann began working on the issue in 2012 and recently launched Meminto to store information in the case of an unexpected death. The German startup might have be able to help the heirs of Matthew Mellon, an American cryptomillionaire who died in April leaving behind $500 million in the cryptocurrency Ripple, that remains unretrievable in accounts spread around the world.
Michael Brück, another German tech entrepreneur, launched Somnity. His services keep passwords and other data on an encrypted memory stick or encrypted directly on the home computer, ensuring the information never leaves the house.
Johannes Steger covers technology and startups for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.