Parents try to force Facebook to yield up son’s digital estate

07 June 2012

A Wisconsin couple have obtained a court order requiring Facebook to give them access to the accounts and online assets of their late son. But the social-media company has so far refused to comply.

Benjamin Stassen committed suicide in late 2010 without leaving a note. As with most young people, most of his personal communications had been done through the internet, so his parents, Jay and Helen, tried to search his accounts for an explanation of his suicide.

However, Facebook and Google, which held most of Benjamin’s records, refused to reveal them, citing client confidentiality, even though the Stassens are clearly the heirs to their son’s estate.

Eventually the Stassens (one of whom is a lawyer) resorted to legal action. They obtained a court order ordering Google to hand over all of Benjamin’s email records, and Google complied. They also now have an order from a local court directing Facebook to give them access to their son’s account, along with any digital assets or records, but at the time of writing, Facebook was still considering how to react. Its policy is not to allow survivors access to a deceased person’s account. A court order releases the company from its client confidentiality obligations, but it could still appeal to a higher state court or even a federal court.

Privacy law in the US is a confusing patchwork of different statutes. Because of this, internet social media companies are usually cautious about granting access to a deceased user’s account, says law professor Peter Swire. There have apparently been cases where an evil-doer falsely claimed that a living individual had died, so as to take control of their accounts.

Moreover, there can be legitimate disagreement about whether a (genuinely) deceased person really wanted their family to be able to read their private emails or other records. There are, according to law professor Naomi Cahn, almost no binding legal precedents on the matter as yet. Some states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Indiana and Idaho) have incorporated digital assets into their estate laws, but they do not agree with one another, some referring only to email while others also deal with social networking and blogging.

Commercial solutions to the problem appear to be more advanced than legislative ones. Several companies have emerged, including Entrustet and Legacy Locker, that will wind up or manage a client’s accounts after their death and according to their instructions.




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