What happens to your social networking presence after you die?
Who does the online you belong to when you pass away? These are pressing issues being deliberated by at least two U.S. states this week as more and more pressure is being applied to social networking platforms like Facebook to allow the relatives of users that have passed away to directly access their late loved ones’ profiles.
Under Facebook’s current policy, deaths can be reported in an online form. When the site learns of a death, it puts that person’s account in a memorialized state. Certain information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and wall are left up so friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. Facebook will provide the estate of the deceased with a download of the account data “if prior consent is obtained from or decreed by the deceased or mandated by law.”
Scandal erupted in late 2009 after Facebook underwent one of its many site renovations, and suddenly a feature was introduced that “suggested” people for users to befriend, including people who had subsequently died. The “memorialized” profiles of late users were not restricted from the “suggestion” algorithm, confronting traumatised families and friends of dead users with the seemingly active profile of a late loved one.
Lawmakers and attorneys in Nebraska and Oregon are considering proposals that would require Facebook and other social networks to grant access to loved ones when a family member dies, essentially making the site contents part of a person’s digital estate. The issue is increasingly important as people record more online and more disputes break out over that material.
Oklahoma has already passed legislation that mandates Facebook, and other platforms, to surrender the account data of deceased users’ if the legal relatives or executors of their estate demand it. Like the Oklahoma law, such a law would allow friends or relatives to take control of social media accounts if the deceased person lived in the state. The measure would treat Facebook, Twitter and email accounts as digital assets that could be closed or continued by an appointed representative.
As such, this is a relatively new twist in the evolution of social and digital networking as part of our daily lives (and ultimately, deaths). It is unknown just how many Facebook profiles, for instance, belong to people who have subsequently passed away. As per site policy, Facebook only “memorializes” profiles on application from a legal relative or guardian, not from just any of the late users friends or contacts. Other sites have no mechanism for postmortem situations in place whatsoever.
Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds said the company was surprised by the Oklahoma law and was working closely with Nebraska legislators on the latest proposal. The company declined to say how many people had requested access to accounts held by Oklahomans, but Bounds said it was relatively rare, continuing, ‘I can tell you there aren’t people pouring out into the streets asking for access’.
Should enough pressure be applied from enough users, their relatives and even state- or national legislatures, that might change.