Facebook Legacy: Implications of Digital Demise
As of March 31, 2014, Facebook reported that it has 665 million active users. As Facebook ages, so will the users. What will happen when we approach a time when there are more dead users than living ones? Recently, Facebook announced a new feature, a Legacy Contact. This feature, under Facebook’s security settings menu, allows the user to select a specific Facebook friend who will be able to control certain aspects of your page after you die. Users can alternatively choose to have their accounts completely deleted after they pass away. If you decide to choose the former option and leave your posthumous Facebook account to be managed by your friend or family member, your Facebook page will become “memorialized” only if someone verifies your death through an obituary or news article. “Memorialized accounts don’t surface in friend suggestions, ads or other ‘public’ places on Facebook.”
Many people stress that Facebook accounts are key “digital assets” and demand them to be handed down. Before Facebook implemented this Legacy Feature, there have been many controversies surrounding access to dead users’ profiles. For example, when Dare Dellcan, a 39 year old committed suicide, nobody knew why the normally “cheery creative director and design company owner did it.” His father tried to access his Facebook account to find any clues that led to his suicide. Facebook rejected his request due to infringement of privacy of the user. Instead, Facebook provided a CD to the father with limited data pulled from his son’s Facebook account. There have been many similar cases where a parent of a killed or deceased child tried to access his or her child but was denied access. Some parents like Richard Linn, father of a son who was killed in Iraq in an enemy ambush, argue that the information belongs to his son’s estate, just like “his old high school papers, his sweaters and his soccer ball, and should be transferred to the next of kin.” Legal reforms are beginning to reflect this thought; 19 states have stepped in to create laws that will protect people’s digital assets and give the person’s family the right to access and manage those accounts after the user died. In addition, The Uniform Law Commission recently created the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which is “aimed to executors, trustees, or the person appointed by court (‘conservator’ or ‘fiduciary’) complete access to deceased’s digital assets.” This Act could supersede Facebook’s terms of service and grant access unless the deceased specifically stated in his or her will a denial of access to social media.
However, many counter argue that the Facebook Legacy feature encroaches on user’s privacy. “Every inappropriate inside joke email, every racy love letter, every scorned suitor on your dating profile, every embarrassing photo buried in the Cloud, every bank statement, medical record, support group or spiritual guidance” will all be exposed as social media websites start to follow Facebook’s trend. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that a “one-size-fits-all” solution for digital asset ignores personal preferences for what should happen to your digital information at death. Furthermore, there have been many concerns regarding the exploitation of a ghost user. What if your friends or family do not send Facebook a death certificate or does not manage your account? Who will use your information after you are dead? Tech companies often mine people’s personal data to better target advertisements. Besides the tech companies, how will the government control, store, and use our data when we are dead? How are we to ensure that our data is being used correctly and not exploited? Besides these concerns, Facebook’s memorialization process also brings anxiety about shutting down Facebook pages of living users. It is easy to pull “Facebook death” pranks, a “bizarre new trend spreadking across the social network.” For example, Katie Notopoulos declared her friend to be dead on Facebook by sending Facebook a link to an obituary from a 75-year-old man with a similar, but different name. Consequently, her friend, who is living healthily, was locked out of his own Facebook account. Imagine your Facebook page false notifying your parents of your death. This Facebook hoax can lead to serious complications and cyber bullying. Overall, Facebook’s Legacy feature raises critical issues surrounding our privacy, digital inheritance, and data exploitation.