Have you ever asked yourself: “What happens to my social media accounts when I die?” Do you think your Twitter handle or Facebook page is valuable enough to be treated as an item on your testament? Or you never thought about what happens to the content that you create on a daily basis? If you have over 40 million Twitter followers as Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid Football Club does, would you expect your family to take down the account when you pass away?
Initially intended for leisure, digital media have transcended the primary objectives of their founders. People now make money based on the number of the followers they have. With a constantly expanding entrepreneurial base, digital media accounts are now used to measure some individuals’ financial worth.
Yet, many experts do not find posthumous digital life a comfortable subject to discuss. However, a few admitted that they could not run away from it for too long, especially now that social media are mainstreaming into other aspects of lives.
The fact that digital media have value that could be monetised, issues around who has the right to control them when the original owner dies, may not be something the society would continue to ignore. Expectedly, they will form part of the social tension that the future generation will contend with. Perhaps, what will make the issue more interesting is the fact that digital pages have the potential to outlive their users and that their value could grow over time.
Deji Bankole, a Lagos-based social media expert, acknowledged the need to examine the matter. He noted that many users of social media died without transferring their passwords to those they left behind.
He said, “Social media platforms have different policies on deceased accounts. For instance, a deceased’s Facebook account can be turned into a memorial page if proved that its user has actually died. The family of the deceased could, in the alternative, request a de-activation of account.
“But, in many cases, relatives of deceased persons can’t have access to their social media accounts. The login details are often taken to the grave. Unless the password of a deceased person is known by someone else or the deceased didn’t remove the login details from his/her computer, the account could be left dormant.”
Bankole described the decision to will a social media account as a personal one. He, however, said he would rather “take his account details and the content created with him to the grave” than transferring them to a relation. He also made a distinction between social media and other physical estates, saying they could not be given a similar treatment when writing a will.
“How a person uses his/her social media account is personal. The energy that runs the social media sphere is conversational and what generates a conversation is a thought. No one can possibly know what another person is thinking about. Can you know what a dead person is thinking about? Obviously, the dead have no thoughts. So, when a social media subscriber is dead, their social media pages should be considered as dead,” he argued.
A partner at Development Diaries, Tayo Elegbede, shared this opinion. He said privacy should be the most important issue during discussions on ownership transfer. If privacy could not be protected, he argued, social media accounts of the dead should be frozen. Should another user consider an account of a dead relation useful, he said, such person should take caution to avoid potential abuses such as privacy violation.
Elegbede said, “Digital accounts of the dead should either be frozen (memorialised) or, at best, transferred to a close relation to manage; howbeit, with some restrictions. The restrictions can be ensured by digital media companies who should insist that users document their choices of relations or friends who should have access to their digital accounts when they pass away. This could be dubbed ‘digital next of kin’.
“At least, one relation of the dead should have access to a digital asset. But, this should be done with some restrictions. There will probably be a need for someone to break the news of the death and announce funeral arrangements.”
Unlike other assets, digital media assets are extremely personal. Hence, Elegbede suggested that users of inherited networking platforms should be compelled to notify the public of a change of ownership. According to him, a notification should be published before the new owner begins to exercise the full administrative right.
On how the living should treat the accounts of the dead, the analyst said attention should be paid to online etiquettes that reflected the character of the dead, in addition to compliance with privacy rules.
“With the growing indispensability of digital tools and platforms, writing a will on digital assets should be important to individuals and legal practitioners. Digital assets are growing, and they could be subjects of conflict if not properly managed. They should be part of contemporary will documents,” he said.
As for Dr. Pius Onobhayedo, an expert in digital communication and lecturer at the School of Media and Communication, the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, the issue could also be approached from the perspective of intellectual right. This, he said, made it a complex issue.
“The question is: who owns what? This is because what is included in your will is what you own. Whether you can ask Facebook, for instance, to give your account to somebody when you die should depend on whether the content is yours or not,” he noted.
The indifferent attitude with which many Nigerians have attended to writing Wills, according to him, will affect how issues arising from digital estate ownership transfer will be treated. He pointed out the growth of digital space and the tendency to monetise platforms as major reasons why users could not continue to ignore the subject.
He said, “It is a serious issue, considering that some people who are late may have left behind a repository of knowledge that is valuable. In that context, there is a right which nobody must ignore. So, what is important is to define ownership.
“Imagine that somebody who signed up on Blogger is dead. The content on the person’s blog is in the public domain. The person or his heir has a right to the content created. And if the deceased monetised the blog, the income it continues to generate belongs to his representative unless there is an agreement with Google, saying ‘My right to the income ceases on account of death’.”
As observed by Onobhayedo, right to digital content is not like a straight line. And the fact that online presence appreciates or depreciates (sometimes at an alarming rate), depending on how it is handled, makes right determination a convoluted matter. For instance, how will you determine the value that an admin manager, who runs a digital platform on behalf of a minor, adds to the digital estate?
According to him, both the minor who the asset is willed to and the individual, who manages it in the meantime, can hold claim to the future right as the latter could be deemed to have sustained the appeal of the platform through regular updates.
In an earlier article, Sola Fagorusi, another digital communication analyst, had observed that the commercial disruption of the hitherto pastime would expand the job description of copyright lawyers in the coming years.
He noted, “The growing social media enterprise is enough call to reflect on the future for individuals and organisations that are making a fortune from online business nowadays.
“As it stands, my profile pictures on Facebook would outlive me, believing that Facebook will exist for many more years to come. If Twitter stands the test of time and decides to preserve its content, our tweets would be there for our grandchildren to peruse. Even if they never meet us, they would have an idea of what our thoughts and interests were while we were here.”
Even the most conservative users, Fagorusi observed, would soon realise that the new digital culture had a deeper root in the socio-economic life of an individual when they began to see posters and newspaper adverts inviting them to a “digital death summit”.
Still, there are social media experts who do not think this issue should be given prominence. Soyem Osakwe, a social media branding consultant, is in this category. According to her, a late celebrity’s page could be used to advance the cause the late user stood for. Otherwise, she said, “Private social media profiles should be allowed to rest in peace.”
Similarly, Amara Njoku said such accounts should be allowed to operate for some weeks so as to allow people to pay tributes to the dead after which they should be taken down.
But a lawyer at Indemnity Partners, Chuks Nwachukwu, said a Twitter or Facebook user had no ownership right to their pages or contents. He likened a social media post to a letter to an editor, wondering how anybody could lay claim to such a document.
“If there is right of ownership, it should be exercised by the service provider, that is, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as the case maybe. So, the content or the account cannot be willed to one’s representatives,” he said.
The legal expert made a distinction between social media accounts and websites, saying only the latter had the character of personal possessions and could be willed.
The dead, their inactive accounts
Within the short period of time that Nigerians have paid a serious attention to virtual networking, not a few pages have been abandoned on account of death. They are neither taken down nor memorialised as advised by experts. Indeed, in a world where business organisations are looking for ‘priced’ social media pages to buy into, families of popular social media users could make money from such pages.
Before her death in February 2013, Susan Harvey (popularly known as Goldie) had grown her Facebook and Twitter pages up to a point where many would consider as commercially-viable. Almost three years after her death, Harvey’s @GoldieHarvey still occupies its space on Twitter network.
After the death of the singer, the Twitter page was operated for a few weeks. During that period, the handle was used to announce her death and subsequently, publicise a new movie. But it stopped publishing on March 5, 2013. The initial posthumous posts suggested that it had been memorialised. But now there is an indication that @GoldieHarvey has been abandoned.
Goldie’s Twitter page retains the majority of its followers. As of Wednesday, the late star’s page had 53,100 followers, including top showbiz personalities and celebrities from different parts of Africa. Thus, the page could still serve as a memorial platform should the family choose to reactivate it.
Apart from @GoldieHarvey, Goldie was associated with several other social media pages, one of which (@Goldiegagafans) is currently being used by a gossip site to tweet blogs.
Unlike Goldie, the family of the late Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Dora Akunyili, has kept her Facebook page alive. Akunyili’s relations may not have continued the cause the late pharmacist’s fight. But, the world, through the page, can track what diverse groups are doing to keep her memory fresh.
Going to two years after her death, the late singer Kefee Momoh’s photographs still adorn major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, many people may have unfollowed Kefee, but her page has yet to be taken down. Occasionally, her fans drop tributes on the timeline.
One can still follow Oronto Douglas, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s aide, on Facebook. Notwithstanding his death, Douglas’ timeline still keeps collections of the statements he made on national issues. But, since he passed away, not a word has been published on the page which Douglas visited last on March 8, 2015. And his profile has not been modified since his passing.
Douglas’s Facebook is one more social media profile that has ‘refused’ to die with its user though it has not been memorialised either.
‘Sorry, my husband passed away seven months ago’
Imagine the above is the response you get on dialling a number belonging to a friend or an associate. It has been a while you spoke with the person who could be a friend, associate or anybody in a formal position. The fact is that you did not contact him in the past months. When you, however, telephoned him, it was the wife who broke the ‘news’.
While this is the experience of a Lagos-based journalist, Adeyeri Samuel, who wanted to request an interview with a lawyer, not knowing he had passed on, there are many instances when members of the family of a deceased person continue to use his phone and number. Often, this happens when the husband is dead and the wife continues to operate the phone. What needs to be unravelled is the legal implication of such a development.
But findings have also showed that the telephone lines of many late subscribers are being abandoned by their relations. For instance, True Caller, on Wednesday, identified the late Kefee as user of her MTN line. But those who are close to the late singer said the line had been inactive.
Another line belonging to an Ibadan, Oyo State-based businessman, Philip Saka, has been abandoned by his family members. One of his relations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the family did not consider it necessary to reach out to the service provider to deactivate the line, as they had more important issues to worry about. There are several other dead telecoms subscribers who are in the category of Saka.
For now, there is no policy on how lines of dead users should be handled. Funsho Aina, spokesperson for MTN, said such lines were handled in line with the stipulation of the Nigerian Communications Commission on inactive lines. According to him, every line, whether the user is alive or dead, is retrieved and relocated to a new customer if it remains inactive for 90 days.
Aina, however, said an intending user, where the death of the original subscriber was reported, was required to re-register the lines before use. He added that such a person was required to convince the telecoms provider why the line should be reassigned to him.
A source said Globacom also adopted the NCC policy in handling phone lines of deceased customers. The source said there was yet no “special policy on how such lines are treated”, stressing that the firm would not deactivate any line unless it was inactive.
The dead can actually ‘live forever’
Interestingly, techies are thinking ahead of users as regards the right to the use of social media pages. Google, for instance, has introduced a new product called Inactive Account Manager. It enables subscribers to give an instruction to Google on how they want their digital accounts to be managed when they depart. With Inactive Account Manager, users can submit a request on whether the tech company should close their accounts; who could request funds from monetised accounts; who could obtain data from them and how potential hijacking could be resolved.
Google’s initiative is based on the fact that “many people pass on without leaving clear instructions about how to manage their online accounts.”
As part of the after-life deal, the tech giant says it is working with immediate family members of the deceased and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to have died. Under certain circumstances, according to Google, family members could also be assisted to obtain content from a deceased user’s account as long as such action does violate the late user’s privacy.
“Users have a strong and reasonable expectation of privacy and security when using Google’s products. We believe that the trust placed in us by our users requires us to make sure that their information is safe, even in the event of their death,” states Google’s policy statement.
Facebook has also started treating digital pages like physical assets. As part of its policy, the site memorialises an account once it is aware that its owner has passed away. Hence, users have the option of choosing legacy contacts. Legacy contacts, as in the case of physical assets, are individuals with rights to manage memorialised accounts.
However, memorialised account manager, according to the rules, does not retain all the rights a diseased user had.
New users can accept or reject new friend requests, change profile/cover photos and share new updates. But they cannot remove past posts, photos and other contents that are shared. Also, they cannot read messages the late user exchanged with friends or remove old friends.
Facebook and Google’s restrictions appear to have addressed the concerns that memorialisation could violate the privacy of original users.
Unfortunately, these restrictions only apply when users adopt a former process in transferring their digital ‘wealth’.
Where admin right is given to a friend or relation without engaging the service provider, privacy and safety issues are at the discretion of the new users. Statistics on the rate at which users are embracing formal transfer are rare. But an informal method and unauthorised use of admin right, according to experts, are the prevalent trends at the moment.