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April 18th, 2007 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Access denied

A Beaverton woman's fight for her dead son's website ends in a first-of-a-kind lawsuit against Facebook.com.

     
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Loren Williams
In a joke on his Facebook.com page, Loren Williams asks for "a tall well-built woman with good legs who appreciates a good fucking without getting too serious."

It's not the kind of humor most guys would use in front of their mothers, or that most moms might want to see.

But after Williams died in a 2005 motorcycle crash in Tempe, Ariz., his mom wanted access to her son's Web page on Facebook—a social-networking site where students with similar interests can meet up. Normally just online friends can see the page, and only Loren could read the messages that friends wrote him on the site.

Karen Williams, a second-grade teacher from Beaverton, says reading her 22-year-old son's page will bring insight into his life and help her deal with losing her eldest of two children. Loren's friends let her see the site, but she wants the messages, too.

"It's knowing a little bit more about your son that you're never going to see again," she says.

Williams, however, hit the same obstacles that other grief-stricken parents face when trying to get their dead kids' emails and other online info. The data is protected by a 21-year-old federal law that makes it difficult for next-of-kin to gain access.

So she and her husband, David, filed suit April 10 in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Facebook Inc. for access to their son's page. The fight is believed to be the first of its kind nationally against Facebook.com, according to Seattle Internet lawyer Al Gidari, Facebook's attorney in the case.

Williams' attorney, Jim Hillas, says the lawsuit is just a formality. After nine months of wrangling, officials at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., agreed to give the parents access—but only after they sue to get a court order. A judge signed off on an agreement April 11 between the Williamses and Facebook that gives the family full access to their son's site within 10 days.

Emails between Facebook officials and Williams show that until the family got a lawyer, the company refused to give them access. Facebook even changed their son's password after Karen Williams obtained it from one of his friends. Facebook officials did not return repeated calls for comment.

The underlying issue is the federal 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which prevents disclosing stored communications unless there's a court order. It was written before the Internet came into widespread use.

"When a young man dies, his parents walk into his room and take the shoebox full of letters out from under his bed," Gidari says. "But in the electronic world, it's just very difficult to do this under the law."

That leaves online companies with a tough choice—give access to grieving parents, or possibly face anger from friends who expected privacy when they posted.

Cases with other online providers have popped up in recent years. In 2005, a Michigan court ordered Yahoo to give a family access to the emails of a Marine killed in Iraq. They had to file an injunction to keep Yahoo from deleting the account after 90 days.

Karen Williams didn't think of going after her son's Yahoo account until it was already shut down. And now she urges people to leave passwords somewhere family members can find them in an emergency.

"Technology has outpaced the law," she says.

 
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