What happens to your Facebook account when you die? The social networking giant first addressed the question in 2009 after one of its engineers lost a loved one, and decided to develop a memorial feature. But as Facebook continued to grow in popularity over the years, its “deceased users” came to represent a significant share of accounts. The response? Earlier this year a new “Legacy contact” feature was announced that enables access to a user’s account when they die. This means that trusted contacts can convert profiles into virtual memorials and in some cases access the archive of the deceased’s data, from photos to posts.
When someone passes away, their closest relations now have to organize their digital matters as well as their more traditional affairs. How can they update social profiles? How can they get access to and manage administrative and banking services? And what about “digital assets” like pictures, eBooks, music that belonged to their loved one?
The family’s practical – and emotional – need for closure is clear. But our digital legacy throws up an ethical dilemma. Our deaths most certainly aren’t always anticipated, and even if they were, our digital life-after-death isn’t something we’re accustomed to thinking about. How much do we want to share? And how can our service providers and families alike be expected to know?
From a legal standpoint, many websites have made sure – through terms and conditions – that they have no obligation to provide access to data and digital assets when one of their users dies. And why do they do that? Most websites model their revenues using a “Life Time Value” indicator, which is the actualized value of the money they will make during a user’s lifetime using their product. As things stand, managing dead users is not lucrative, therefore most websites try to make sure associated costs are kept low.
Facebook is making real strides in the right direction to resolve the problem of digital legacy and all its complexities. Now, we’re able to give our chosen “digital heir” access to the Facebook data of our choice (excluding private messages.) Should you die, this person has legal access to your account. And Facebook has an interest in maintaining this feature that stretches beyond keeping friends and family happy. Once your Facebook profile has become a memorial it can still drive traffic, and even be monetized, a long time after your death. We don’t use the term “Death Time Value” yet – but as more sites follow in Facebook’s footsteps, this could well become the case.
But from our point of view, the current living users of Facebook, this still isn’t enough to give us peace about our digital afterlife. Perhaps we’re happy to offer up our posts and photos to our friends and relatives, but what about Facebook itself? Many will want to be sure their accounts are deleted – not just from public view, but from Facebook’s servers. With digitally stored data in a relatively new age of Internet services, there are many unanswered questions about what happens to ‘our’ assets when we die. How long will Facebook use our data for? Who will be able to use it if the Facebook brand or corporation disappears?
Although Facebook might be the service with the greatest attention on its data privacy – and the company making the biggest steps to address it – these questions are relevant for every website we use. Digital legacy is bigger than Facebook. Much like your traditional will, it’s time to prepare for what happens to your digital assets when you die in the same exhaustive and centralized way – as is becoming the standard recommendation of many lawyers.
The dozens of logins we have for dozens of sites are valuable keys to assets that carry economic, legal and sentimental value. That’s why more and more people have started to use password mangers like Dashlane; making it possible to define a digital heir who can access all our chosen accounts should we die. This way, our digital legacy can be universally managed on our own terms, not those of the websites we use.