The death of a loved one has always been a difficult moment but with the rise of the internet and social media platforms, families now also have to contend with sometimes-murky digital afterlife rules.
Only 13% of people have made any sort of plans regarding their social media accounts following their death, according to a 2017 survey by the Digital Legacy Association (DLA).
“Social media platforms are now understanding that they need to have an end of life policy,” James Norris, founder of the DLA, told Euronews.
“The technology they’re starting to bring in is a great start but there’s still a lot to do.
“One of the main problems when it comes to planning for your digital death and the array of different accounts that we have is that each platform is different and each requires a different way in which to manage how the account is passed on,” he explained, recommending people document their wishes in a social media will.
Below are the rules on users’s death for the main platforms.
Rules on deceased social media users
Facebook users can appoint a legacy contact who would then have access to their account after their death. That person can then look after the memorialised account or delete it.
If no legacy contact has been appointed by the user, Facebook memorialises the account when it becomes aware of the user’s passing.
Once memorialised, the account can’t be logged into and remains visible to the audience it was shared with as a place for them to “gather and share memories,” according to Facebook’s settings.
To remove a deceased user’s account, Twitter requires a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate or a verified immediate family member of the deceased to make a request or the account will be deactivated.
They will need to provide details including information about the deceased, a copy of their ID, and a copy of the late user’s death certificate, according to Twitter’s Help Centre.
Like Facebook, Google allows users to appoint a person who would be responsible for their account after their death. This so-called “Inactive Account Manager” is then able to access account information and delete the account.
If no such person is appointed, immediate family members can get in touch to request the account be deleted.
However, Google highlights on its Help page that “any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after careful review”.
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Social media users are being urged to appoint a digital executor to make sure their wishes for their accounts are respected after death.
Many people do their banking, insurance and other financial business online, as well as engage on social media platforms, without giving much thought to legal protocols.
Director of Operations at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network Narelle Clark told Nine to Noon people are increasingly storing their personal and financial information online.
They often don’t read the fine print and have no idea what will happen to their digital footprint if they die.
Ms Clark is hosting a forum set up by Internet New Zealand in Wellington on Thursday, which will feature experts discussing the types of steps people can take to protect their digital legacy.
“What you should do is sit down and, alongside your normal will, think up all of the things you want to do with your digital footprint,” she said.
“All of this stuff that you’re accumulating online, particularly if it’s got monetary value – I can’t stress that enough, if it’s got monetary value – make sure that your designated heirs can get access to all this after you move on.”
Some people want their Facebook accounts to remain open after they die so people can visit their page and remember them. Photo: 123RF
Facebook now allows members to set up a legacy contact, allowing its user to nominate someone who will decide whether their page is shut down, or kept online as a memorial page to the deceased.
“You can also download the entire contents offline so that your family can remember your photos and so forth offline, if they want to sort through them offline rather than online, but people often find having some online presence – especially if that’s how they interacted with you – can be comforting.
“People wanted to leave it there because they can go to that person’s Facebook page and remember them and be comforted by the memories and times they had fun together, when they visited the Louvre together or Eiffel Tower or whatever they did.”
Google, meanwhile, might not hand over access to family members without a court order, to protect the privacy of people who had been in correspondence with the email account holder. However, you can also set up an inactive account manager, who might be notified if your account hasn’t been used in some time.
Twitter reserves the right to keep high-profile accounts active after the death of the original owner, with the possibility that the account might use artificial intelligence to continue tweeting.
“If Twitter decides, arguably, your account is making them a lot of money because they like advertising they could well decide not to shut it down.
“And there is now such a thing as an avatar, that can live on and tweet in your name using artificial intelligence to look at all the tweets you used to tweet.”
New Zealand Law Society has a checklist online, about what questions you should ask yourself about what you want to happen with your digital legacy after you die, and information about what different social media providers require to store, disclose or remove your content.
What happens to your social media legacy when you die? The question has arisen with increasing urgency lately, put into focus by features like Facebook’s occasionally creepy “On This Day” reminder and addressed by scattered policies across social media platforms. Now, states are attempting to get a better handle on the issue, most recently Florida, with bills intended to create a more consistent framework for our online afterlives.
A bill passed unanimously in the Florida Senate on Tuesday, with a related bill planned for debate in the House, that would require an explicit agreement by account holders in a will or through an internet company to allow another person to take over an accounts if they die. The Florida Senate said the bill is meant to clear up potential conflict between internet companies and loved ones attempting to access accounts after death.
Florida’s legislature comes after several other states have created similar frameworks. Connecticut recently ruled only an administrator of an estate can access the emails of a deceased person, and Rhode Island passed a similar law granting the administrator access to email as well. Neither of those policies give the person access to the social media accounts of the deceased, but other states, like Oklahoma, specify that administrator access does include microblogging and social media accounts.
With these scattered, inconsistent state-level policies, some social media platforms have created their own answers. Facebook offers members the option to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage their accounts after death. Google has also allowed users to name heirs and prepare for “digital afterlife.”
Of course, social media is not the only factor to get in order after death: there is also online banking (reminding someone to cash out your Venmo after you die, for example), gaming avatars, and online dating accounts. Privacy advocates have long expressed the need to create consistent framework for death online, and some “digital legacy” companies have popped up to cater to that market.
The laws are slowly catching up as we navigate the awkward early stages of death on the internet: we don’t really “like” that someone died, and we don’t need to be reminded that “this day in 2014” we were happily hanging out with someone who is no longer with us. As we straighten out these uncomfortable glitches in the fabric of the internet, and until we have more laws like the one Florida is considering, you should probably designate the person you’ve talked the least shit about on gchat to nuke your accounts when you die.