Where Social Profiles Go When You Die
As more of our lives -- relationships, pictures, personal messages -- move online, who gains access to our virtual identities and information when we die?
When one of my high school friends passed away last year, his family, friends, and acquaintances flocked to his Facebook wall to share memories. When his birthday came, it was sad but comforting to see the Facebook notification and read the postings. In some way, it feels like we're keeping his memory alive in this digital gathering place that's just for us, the last "place" many of us interacted with him, to mourn and remember.
When Facebook is notified of a death, it memorializes the profile and restricts it to a "friends only" privacy level. Facebook will provide the estate of the deceased with a record of the account data, but only "if prior consent is obtained from or decreed by the deceased or mandated by law."
Facebook will also honor requests from friends and relatives to remove a deceased member's profile. But gaining flat-out access to someone else's account after their death is not permitted. Creating a memorial page is okay; taking over someone's personal profile page is not.
Karen Williams of Nebraska found that out the hard way when her son died in a motorcycle crash in 2005. Longing to share his memory and know everything about her son's life, she asked Facebook for his profile password. Facebook denied her request.
"I wanted full and unobstructed access, and they balked at that," Williams told the Huffington Post, recalling her son's death in 2005. "It was heartbreaking. I was a parent grasping at straws to get anything I could get."
Williams ultimately got back into her son's account, but it took a lawsuit and a two-year legal battle that ended with Facebook granting her 10 months of access before removing her son's page altogether.
Karen's story brings up difficult questions. Would her son have wanted her to have access to his Facebook page? Would he want what was there protected from prying eyes, even those of a mom trying to get closer to her deceased son? What should happen to digital/intellectual property when a death occurs?
One solution is to include online passwords as part of wills, stipulating who, if anyone, can gain access, and who can't.
"I think this...will be helpful to people who are thinking about issues not only of inheritance but planning," Jonathan I. Ezor, professor of law and technology at Touro Law Center in Huntington, New York, told the Associated Press. "When one family member tells another where the important paperwork is, the will, safe deposit box key, etc., the list of passwords is going to be added to that."
But when there is no stipulation in the will, where does the moral obligation lie? Facebook claims it's protecting its users by refusing to release profile information to anyone without prior permission, but what if the profile contains important information, and what of surviving friends and relatives who might gain comfort from the page?
State lawmakers are taking notice of the issue. Oklahoma passed a law last year requiring social networking sites like Facebook to grant access to friends and family of the deceased, and Nebraska and Oregon are reportedly considering similar legislation.
Web giants like Microsoft and AOL have processes in place to transfer accounts in the event of a death, but other Internet companies might not give in so easily. After John Ellsworth's son died fighting in Iraq, the grieving father asked Yahoo for access to his son's e-mail account, but Yahoo firmly denied the request.
"The commitment we've made to every person who signs-up for a Yahoo! Mail account is to treat their e-mail as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.
The issue becomes even more complicated, however, when Internet companies routinely grant private profile access to government bodies, including police, the FBI, and the CIA. Twitter made headlines recently when it provided the Boston Police Department access to a suspected hacker's profile. Most citizens support such access when it helps solve a crime, but the move left others asking why the government has rights that don't seem to apply to a deceased user's grieving family.
With so many of our dreams, desires, and private interests collected and stored in online profiles, the value of those spaces increase. More than just the occasional posting of information, social profiles are, for many, the virtual equivalent of a diary or photo album, a time capsule of sorts.
That time capsule means a lot to those of us who've lost friends and family members, especially those we may have lost touch with over the years. I find comfort knowing my friend's photo is only a click away, and that I'm in good company posting my fond memories of him.
Still, I ask myself if I'd want my mother or grandmother reading every private message, seeing every photo, that I ever posted on my Facebook wall... and I can't help but cringe just a little.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
Categories: Beyond Technology