I must preemptively refer you to John Gregory’s post from last year when it comes to canvassing the laws, and lack thereof, around how third party services (like Google, Facebook, PayPal, etc.) are obliged to act upon the death of an account holder. The whole legal terrain is fascinating, and consists of a stewing heap of conflicting rationales, policies, privacy legislation and common laws around the rights of heirs, deceased people, states and private corporations. It’s all heading in a better direction, probably, with the advent of uniform legislation like FADA, but for some time it has been quite a mess.
The question many have posed but no one can singularly answer is “what happens to the digital assets of a deceased person?” Does the data pass as a downloadable archive to the estate? Does a representative gain access in the place of the deceased owner or account holder? Is the information wiped? Or shall it sit on a server indefinitely with no one permitted to gain access?
Well, it really depends on the service. And that seems like mean comfort to many.
“For many, Facebook has become a highly accessible (even mobile) vehicle for grieving and, ultimately, catharsis.”
Increasingly, especially with social media accounts that maintain a passive presence regardless of when a post was made, we see around us the digital ghosts of departed friends and family. Two years ago there was an interesting article discussing stories of “Facebook After Death” featuring anecdotes around a phenomenon which is only increasing—inexorable as death is (and now too our habits using social media). The article says, “As of 2012, 30 million people who maintained Facebook accounts have died, according to a report by The Huffington Post. Some studies approximate that nearly 3 million users have died in 2012 alone; 580,000 in the U.S.”
Someone even did a trendy infographic on the macabre topic:
The digital graveyard is only more crowded, with some idle genius calculating that the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook by 2065, if Facebook stops growing. Google established an Inactive Account Manager in mid-2013, but it has taken some time for Facebook to wade in and offer expanded controls beyond mere memorialization (which was introduced in 2009).
The news this past week, however, is that Facebook now lets you choose who will control your Facebook account through a proxy called a “Legacy Contact“. It’s not activated in Canada yet, but one may expect that could change.
Previously Facebook converted user account pages to “memorial” pages if someone close to the deceased reported the death to Facebook, and doing this removes many capabilities from the account. No curator was left with any ability to actually use the account. It remained a one-way exchange.
“The feature, called legacy contact, appears in Facebook’s security settings menu. There, you can select a specific Facebook friend who will be able to control certain aspects of your page, like your profile and header image, after you die. Alternatively, users can opt to have their account deleted after they pass away.”
Samantha Collier has also posted a personal story in connection with this news.
The Lifehacker article I linked to also has a link to an interesting post about creating a “in-case-of-emergency” kit for your data.