Hard questions: What should happen to people’s online identity when they die?
Aug 21, 2017
August 18, 2017
ByMonika Bickert, Director of Global Policy Management
In the days after my husband died, I kept sending him text messages. His cell phone lay uncharged on my nightstand, just a few feet away from me, and I knew no one would ever read the words I wrote, but I kept writing anyway. I needed to feel like I was still connected to him. As I sat in bed texting, I knew that my phone also held recent photos of Phil smiling with our daughters and a video of him laughing with his brother just two days before I took him to the hospital, but I didn’t look at those. It would have hurt too much. Instead, I just kept writing to him, pretending he was on the other side of the messages I was sending and would soon write back.
When we lose someone we love, we often feel a desperate need to connect to them in whatever way we can. In moments like that, our phones, the internet and social media can sometimes be a refuge. We can talk to our loved ones, as I did, or when we’re ready to face the memories, we can lose ourselves in old emails, photos, videos and posts. With an ease that wasn’t possible 20 years ago, we can now hear and see our loved ones after they are gone, and we can share those memories with others who are grieving.
But other times, the online world can make loss even more painful. The reminders of our loved ones are everywhere, and with each reminder a renewed realization of their death. For months after Phil died, I’d cry when I’d receive an Amazon email prompting him to order his regular shipment of secondhand detective novels, or a message from his pharmacy cheerfully reminding him that his chemotherapy was ready for pickup. Even now, I pause whenever I log into Facebook and see a post of mine resurfaced from years ago. I worry it will be one of the many I shared with friends over the course of Phil’s battle with cancer, detailing his progress and hinting at our naïve faith that he would continue to beat the odds.
Depending on the circumstances of a person’s death, those online reminders can be overwhelming. A mother who loses her daughter to domestic violence may feel sick when she looks online and sees photos of her daughter’s wedding day. A university student who receives a birthday reminder for a roommate who died by suicide might feel grief more acutely thinking of all the expressions of love and support his roommate would be receiving if he were around.
Our Approach at Facebook
When people come to Facebook after suffering a loss, we want them to feel comfort, not pain, which is why we stop sending birthday reminders once we know someone has passed away, and why we try to make it easy for surviving family members to reach us.
All too often, however, it’s difficult for us to know what action to take with the account of someone who has died. What should we do with an account of a deceased young woman, for instance, when one of her parents wants to delete the account but the other wants to preserve it as a memorial for friends and family? How do we know what the daughter would have wanted? And what should we do if they want to see the private messages between the daughter and her friends – friends who are still alive and don’t want their messages to become public?
These questions — how to weigh survivors’ competing interests, determine the wishes of the deceased, and protect the privacy of third parties – have been some of the toughest we’ve confronted, and we still don’t have all the answers. Laws may provide clarity, but often they do not. In many countries, the legal framework for transferring assets to surviving family members does not account for digital assets like social media or email accounts. We are, however, doing our part to try and make these situations easier for everyone.
Respect the Wishes of the Deceased
Where the law permits, we try to respect the wishes of those who have passed away. Sometimes, however, we simply don’t know what the person would have wanted. If a bereaved spouse asks us to add her as a friend to her late husband’s profile so she can see his photos and posts, how do we know if that’s what her husband would have wanted? Is there a reason they were not previously Facebook friends? Does it mean something if she had sent him a friend request when he was alive and he had rejected it? What if the wife had simply never been on Facebook until after her husband’s death?
If we don’t know what the deceased person would have wanted, we try to leave the account exactly as that person left it. When we learn that someone has passed away, our standard process is to add “Remembering” above the name on the person’s profile, to make clear that the account is now a memorial site, and to stop any new attempts to log into the account. Once we’ve memorialized an account, anything on the profile remains on Facebook and is visible to the people who could already see it before the profile was memorialized. We don’t remove or change anything. This is our way of respecting the choices someone made while alive.
Memorialization is our default action, but we know that some people might not want their account preserved this way. They might prefer that we delete their profile. Recognizing this, we give people a way to let us know they want their account permanently deleted when they die. We may also delete profiles when the next of kin tells us that the deceased loved one would have preferred that we delete the account rather than memorialize it.
Other people might want a friend or family member to be able to manage their profile as a memorial site after their death. That’s why in 2015, we created the option for people to choose a legacy contact. A legacy contact is a family member or friend who can manage certain features on your account if you pass away, such as changing your profile picture, accepting friend requests or adding a pinned post to the top of your profile. They can also elect to delete your account. You can give your legacy contact permission to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information you shared on Facebook, but they won’t be able to log in as you or see your private messages. Find out more about legacy contacts and how to add one to your account in our Help Center.
Protect the Privacy of Survivors
Even where the laws are clear and the intent of the deceased person is clear, we sometimes have other interests to consider. For instance, if a father loses a teenaged son to suicide, the father might want to read the private messages of his son to understand what was happening in his son’s life. Had he been struggling in his university classes? Was he having problems with his boyfriend? As natural as it might seem to provide those messages to the father, we also have to consider that the people who exchanged messages with the son likely expected those messages would remain private.
Although cases like this are heartbreaking, we generally can’t turn over private messages on Facebook without affecting other people’s privacy. In a private conversation between two people, we assume that both people intended the messages to remain private. And even where it feels right to turn over private messages to family members, laws may prevent us from doing so. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act and Stored Communications Act, for instance, prevent us from relying upon family consent to disclose the contents of a person’s communications.
We’re Still Learning
Despite our efforts to respect the wishes of those who pass away and those who survive them, we still encounter difficult situations where we end up disappointing people.
And even when we know perfectly and can act consistently with the wishes of the deceased and their loved ones, we know our actions will be of limited comfort. As I’m learning from my own experience, grief doesn’t recede quickly or quietly. Nearly a year after Phil died, I still catch my breath when I look through old photos on my phone. Some of those photos, like the ones I took of Phil in the hospital when I mistakenly thought we’d be going home the next day, move me to tears.
But others, like the one of him standing proudly in our backyard with our daughters on Father’s Day, are starting to make me smile again. Those flashes of happiness, however brief, prove to me that reminders of our loved ones don’t have to be reminders of loss. And that, in turn, gives me hope that social media and the rest of our online world, rather than provoking pain, can ultimately ease our grief.