[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Most consumers want to maintain control over who accesses and uses their personal information. Today she tackles a control issue that affects all social media users and few want to discuss.]
No one wants to think about death. I know from personal experience it can be sudden, random, and inexplicable. There’s law and precedent to guide what happens to your estate upon death, but what happens to the things you leave behind online? Facebook says you own all the data you post on their site. Does that ownership and control transfer to your heirs as physical property would? In a word – No.
Of course, it’s not that simple.
On Facebook as with any site, ownership is operationalized through the use of your ID and password. If your executor or next of kin knows the magic word, control of your virtual assets is no problem. If not, things become more complex. If no one tells Facebook anything, the account stays up and viable, even if there is no activity. Surprisingly, Facebook does not close or deactivate accounts just for inactivity, no matter how long they may be fallow.
An account can be deactivated and reactivated at will with the password. It can be deleted outright, an action that cannot be undone. Facebook Terms say that no one can access the data in a deleted account, and that Facebook will never use the data. For technical reasons things like photos may be on their servers for a little while after deletion (likely until it's overwritten with more data – or until Mark Zuckerberg decides that even dead people want to share everything). No such promises are offered in the FAQ for memorialized or deactivated accounts.
The relevant Facebook FAQ privileges the option to 'memorialize' the page of the dead person (a close family member must provide a link to an online obituary). With this action, no one else can friend the account. If you are already a friend, you can post things to the page and share your grief or memories with others in the dead person's existing circle of friends. Facebook removes key data from the profile (contact info, addresses, etc.), and pulls it from searches on or off Facebook (only friends can search Facebook and find it). It also stops the "you might know X why don't you friend him" suggestions, which is only appropriate.
It felt a tad scary to me that Facebook only requires an obit or a news article rather than a death certificate. As Jeff Goldblum knows, with internet connectivity and today's instant news cycle, that can be problematic. I also found it quite tacky that while searching for death at Facebook's help center, I got ads for several death-titled games along side the straightforward FAQs:
Being an Izzard fan, the “Cake-or-Death?” app caught my eye. If I were really grieving would I find this offensive? Someone at Facebook should have enough class to keep such a juxtaposition from occurring.
What’s the best approach? All have some value – the issue is making sure someone knows what you think would be best for you and your family, and that you have the ability to follow that path. Some online commenters suggested the will should say explicitly whether account deletion or memorialization is desired; click here to read a moving vote for the latter.
To have the most options, you may want to be sure that someone knows your passwords (or how to deduce them) upon your death, particularly if you frequently shop or pay bills online. As Facebook might lock family out once apprised of the owner’s death (recall that only the owner has permission to use the account under Facebook's terms), whatever actions heirs want to take should be timely. There are service providers who will maintain your passwords for you, as well. As a fan of informed choice, I especially appreciated this article for its thorough analysis about our virtual property after death.
Now the awkward cynical questions -- how much ad revenue do they get from those memorialized pages? What could Facebook do with its “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to use our photos and videos (a license we grant each time we upload content, and which ends only with the account’s closing)? Given that a memorial is only available to friends, does Facebook now get to reset any privacy settings previously customized to lists? What about access from those in one’s network? If any of our readers can shed light on these questions, please do.
By the way, I find no villain in this scenario. Our technological capabilities almost always outpace the law, and Facebook is just part of that landscape. As the current 400-pound gorilla of social networking, however, Facebook’s actions (and inactions) set precedent, for better or for worse. (The Bemister family would vehemently disagree with the pass I’ve given Facebook. A second article has more detail about the evolution of social network technology versus law and precedent, with a couple of anecdotal horror stories.)
Talk to you later. I gotta go work on my will.
© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.