After Eric’s suicide in January 2011, Ricky and Diane Rash hunted for clues to explain their son’s death, including his Facebook page. But they found that the Internet giant, citing state and federal privacy laws, blocked their access until their son’s estate was settled. So now the Rashes want to change the law.
“We were just grieving parents reaching out for anything we could,” Ricky Rash said. “Our issue with Facebook and social media is, we should have access.”
On Monday, the Virginia Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that would make it easier for parents, guardians or other legal representatives to obtain access to a minor’s online accounts after the minor’s death.
“Any parent in this situation would want to find answers,” said Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This is the 2013 equivalent of what you would store under your bed. Today, we store it on a server.”
Bulova initially pushed for a law that would give more sweeping access. The measure now — which was rolled into a bill sponsored by Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr. (R-Lunenburg) — left the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week by a vote of 8 to 6, with one abstention. Another version, which passed the Senate, is moving through the House.
Bulova said these measures all wrestle with an issue not addressed by the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. He said the 1986 law, which allows children as young as 13 to enter terms of service agreements, also shields their privacy, even from their parents after the child’s death.
Yet Facebook and other Internet services find themselves in a difficult position.
“These are tragic situations and Facebook always tries to be as helpful to families as possible while still complying with federal and state law,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mail.
Facebook will deactivate an account, removing the profile and associated information, after families or loved ones provide proof of the loved one’s death. With documentation of a person’s death, Facebook allows that page to become an online memorial where friends and family can post remembrances.
“In those rare cases where the family of the deceased seeks access to the contents of their loved one’s account, we will respond in a way that is sensitive to their loss and is consistent with applicable law, which limits a provider’s ability to disclose data to third parties,” said Noyes, who is Facebook’s manager of public policy communications.