Your Social Media Account's Life After Death

Social media is about showing your best life, but there’s little thought about what happens to our accounts when we die.

Social media has not only changed the way we live and share our experiences, it's also shifting  how our culture remembers the deceased.

Perhaps unknowingly, social media users are all building their 'digital estates' -- these assets include social media profiles, photos and even those crazy cat videos.

Between 2012 and 2014, humans produced more data than in all of civilization before that -- and the rate of accumulation is only getting faster.

Yet what happens to digital legacies when we die is often not talked about, lacks legal infrastructure and differs from platform to platform.

WHAT AUSTRALIAN LAW SAYS

The issue of who and how an account is used following a bereavement is marred by confusion. If a loved one suddenly dies without leaving instructions, there is little Australian law can do to provide guidance to families regarding how to mange social media accounts.

A report last year by Charles Sturt University and The University of Adelaide found more than 70 percent of Australians who had digital assets made no contingency plans for them.

Seventy percent of Australians have made no plans for what should be done with their 'digital assets' when they die. Image: Getty.

"This is a major cause for concern as legislation regarding digital assets and their transferability or access by executors or beneficiaries on death is non-existent in Australia as it is in most jurisdictions," the authors said.

“Younger, less educated individuals on low to moderate salaries are less likely to know what will happen to their digital assets in the event of their incapacity or death,” the report concluded.

In an Australian first, NSW  is currently investigating whether new laws are needed to clear up who can access online data after death.

The state's Attorney General Mark Speakman ordered  a  review of existing laws, including a comparison with developments in the US and Canada. 

Dr Patrick Stokes, a senior lecturer with Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, has been researching the ethics of dealing with digital assets such as social media accounts.

"Do we have a right to simply delete the dead?" he asked.

Stokes has made a submission to the NSW Law Reform Commission’s review and argued the digital remains of those who've passed away should be kept alive online.

"While there may be good reasons to delete some accounts, I believe the default should be preservation,” he said.

Given the ambiguity around what to do with digital assets, Stokes said it was a good idea to specify what you want done with your digital legacy in wills.

“However often we need to make those decisions for the deceased, and when doing that it is important we do so with regards to what they would have wanted rather than what would suit us as the living,” he said.

WHAT'S HAPPENING OVERSEAS?

Last month, Germany’s highest court ruled that access to social networks can be inherited when people die, overturning a previous court decision that kept a grieving mother locked out of her daughter’s account after the girl was hit by a train.

A German mother was given access to her dead daughter's Facebook account after high court ruling. Image: Getty.

At first the mother’s request to access her dead daughter’s Facebook account was denied. She wanted to know if cyber-bullying was behind what could have been her child’s suicide.

In Canada, another mother's search for answers over what led to her 23-year-old son’s sudden death resulted in an unprecedented court order for Facebook, Apple and Google to hand over his passwords.

As of last month, social media users in the United Arab Emirates can now legally bequeath their online accounts to friends or family in the event of their death.

In the US,  a new law was introduced which would allow people to specify in their wills that the executor of their estate can access their email and social media profiles. So far, 39 states have adopted it.

FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER POLICIES

With Facebook there are two options -- to delete the account or to memorialise the account. Users are able to decide in advance, or nominate someone to be a ‘legacy contact’ who can manage the account.

A legacy contact will be allowed to pin a post on your Timeline after your death, such as a funeral announcement.

Facebook’s privacy rules mean you can only see what the user has chosen to share, so you can’t see private messages, not even the person in control as the legacy contact.

Twitter won't grant anyone access to an account regardless of their relationship to the deceased user. IMAGE: Getty Images.

Twitter won't grant anyone access to an account regardless of their relationship to the deceased user. Loved ones are able to request the removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from the point of when a critical injury occurs to the moments before, or after, their death.

These requests are considered "in the light of public interest factors" including the newsworthiness of the content.  Twitter may also delete an account if a death certificate is provided.

Instagram allows for the ‘memorialising’ of an account after a person’s death, but the account cannot be altered in any way. Relatives can request for an account to be deleted.

LinkedIn allows friends and family to report a person's death and requires proof they have passed away. The only option here is account deletion, there will be no way to download or recover the person’s connections or data unless someone has their username and password.

Contact the author at alattouf@networkten.com.au.