Death and Facebook

They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes (unless of course you are one of the super rich and can effectively avoid the taxes). Most of us aren’t particularly prepared for either, although fortunately (or unfortunately) it is almost impossible to forget to pay your taxes.

Even if you have made it as far as writing a will (and only about half of us have) and decided who to leave your priceless antiques and diamond jewellery to, the chances are you haven’t thought much about your online presence.  But with one in four of us spending more time online than asleep it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of that time we are creating or accumulating digital assets of one kind or another.

The UK has one of the highest online populations, with 85% of us, nearly 53 million people, surfing the net, using email, shopping and using social networking sites.  Facebook alone has over 137 million unique visits per month globally, with the average time spent per person on the site at 7¾ hours.  According to one survey, Britons are storing £2.3bn worth of music, film, applications and subscriptions online, and there are more than 5 million accounts on Facebook inactive due to death.  So what happens to all of this when you die?

While the information on your Facebook profile may not seem as obvious or tangible as a house, car or bank account, it can hold real sentimental value for the loved ones you leave behind.  Before the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, Facebook simply deleted the accounts of users who had died.  Since then it will ‘memorialise’ profiles by providing an obituary and allowing Facebook friends to leave posts on the wall for remembrance, but removing all contact information and status updates.

Even though the company requires documentary proof of death before it will memorialise a profile, it seems that it’s much easier than you would think to make this happen, and it is not unheard of for people to log into their account only to find the social media site thinks they are dead.  Disconcerting at best, but probably quite distressing if relatives or friends stumble across it before you do.

Memorialised profiles don’t allow access to much of the information we leave on Facebook.  The parents of Benjamin Stassen, a 21-year-old University of Wisconsin student who committed suicide nearly two years ago, are battling Facebook to get access to his account, despite getting a court order to that effect.  They hope being able to see all the information on his profile might provide them with some answers as to why their son ended his life.

Other online providers are similarly unhelpful.  Yahoo refuses to disclose passwords to a deceased’s relatives and instead automatically deletes an account after 90 days of inactivity.  They say this is to protect the privacy of the dead, and many might agree that the idea of someone reading all their emails after their death is somewhat uncomfortable.  But do the dead have a right to privacy?  After all, if you’d written it all down in a journal or letter there would be hard copies for your survivors to find.

In another heartbreaking case, the family of a US soldier killed in Iraq in 2004 wanted to have both his physical letters and his email.  The Marines automatically return any open or unopened mail, but Yahoo refused and his family had to go to court to get the company to allow them access to his emails.  Even then they weren’t given his password but a CD with copies.

But are not just talking about emails and a few status updates.  In 2005 two avatars, Leto and Enchant, met in the virtual world of Second Life, got married online and built a house together on an island in that world (bear with me).  In real life, Leto lived in Michigan and Enchant in England.  After three years together, several real-life encounters and thousands of hours logged in, Leto died of liver failure while waiting for a transplant.

About six months later, the virtual island they’d lived on and everything on it was erased under the terms of service Leto had signed with the company that created the platform for Second Life.  Enchant decided she couldn’t pay the fees needed to maintain it and so all she has left are copies of a few objects they shared.

If this leaves you a bit bemused, the virtual money Leto used to buy his virtual house with his virtual sea view was paid for with real cash, so this was more than just virtual value.  The global market in virtual goods is probably about £6 billion, but the default setting for many user agreements is for them to be deleted on death, turning it all into virtual dust.

It’s not only those with a virtual self who need to worry. Your rights are pretty shaky when it comes to passing on all your digital music or book.  This is because you don’t actually own them, rather, you are buying a licence to play the track or read the book, a licence granted only to you and which isn’t transferable.

In case you are thinking you can just hand over your passwords, this could be a breach of the terms and conditions you agree when you set up an account (you read the small print right?).  It becomes even more complicated with more and more of us storing files remotely in the iCloud, particularly when it’s quite possible your next of kin doesn’t even know what that is.

While the legal position is far from being clear, there are solutions out there for handling your digital life after death.  Legacy Locker offers a free account that includes storage of information for three digital assets, one beneficiary and one legacy letter (essentially a digital goodbye note sent after death).  AssetLock provides mass storage of important information that may be crucial for others to know after you die, including information on finances, insurance policies, emails and even your final wishes.

My favourite has to be Deathswitch that periodically prompts you to provide a pre-determined password to ensure you’re still alive.  Failure to do so on multiple occasions for a period of time triggers the service to send out personalised pre-written messages, effectively emails from the grave.

On the other hand, you could just staple a copy of all your passwords to your will.

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