If you believe death is the ultimate severance from the mortal world, then log in and fasten your seatbelt. Welcome to the digital afterlife!
Let’s flip the coin and, for once, put aside the “right to be forgotten”. Heads or tails? Let’s talk about the “right to be remembered” this time.
Yes, there is a life beyond death: the digital world we leave behind the boundary of our physical existence. Such a virtual extension would have certainly influenced Plato’s or Spinoza’s understanding of death. The parallel universe containing the digital identities and information of the almost 2,5 billion internet users is growing rapidly. According to a 2007 study from Microsoft, each user has about 25 accounts that require passwords, and types an average of 8 passwords a day. And this was more than seven years ago! The increasing digitalisation of our lives has raised a series of issues related to the virtual afterlife that should be addressed with caution.
What happens to our digital assets after we’re gone? (Transcendence maybe?) The question warrants consideration from multiple aspects: a human perspective as well as a technical and legal dimension.
Digital death through the lens of data protection principles
According to the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) one out of one hundred Facebook profiles belongs to a deceased individual, which corresponds to a total of 130 million inactive profiles. Dormant accounts, victims of this inevitable tendency, will eventually take over the internet and soon outnumber accounts of active users. Consequences? This raises questions for the future of Facebook and Twitter in particular, and for social media in general. It remains to be seen at what point the dead will outnumber the living. Unlike other social media platforms, the case of Facebook is a rather blatant example of a random website disrupting the natural cycle of life: an expansion before the decline!
According to a study carried out by The Digital Beyond, a blog specialized in digital existence matters, if Facebook stopped growing, its cross-over date – the date when the dead outnumber the living – will come sometime around 2065. In contrast, if Facebook keeps growing the cross-over date may reach the mid-2100s. However, that seems highly unlikely. The giant of social media would lose influence as companies and advertisers will soon see their activity rely on obsolete databases filled with information of inactive accounts, thus telemarketing ghosts corresponding to millions of “zombie” profiles and consequently exposing themselves to profit loss. For its part, Facebook’s market shares will start hovering.
From a human perspective, how bizarre and emotionally disturbing would it be receiving promotional mail meant for a deceased loved one? What would your reaction be to Facebook’s popping red notification flag inviting you to wish a happy birthday to a friend who no longer lives? (I experienced some cold sweat from this type of situation myself!)
Stirred by the will to optimise the use of their website and faced with the difficulty in identifying obsolete accounts, social media giants have established technical measures that provide users with new features allowing posthumous management of their personal data. From a legal point of view, the right to access, rectify and delete data is reserved to the concerned data subject. Nevertheless, the heirs of a deceased person, providing proof of their identity, may demand that the data controller takes the death into account and updates the data accordingly. However, things could get delicate in the absence of a manifestation of will by the deceased. Confronted with heirs’ divergent perception on the deceased post-mortem will, online companies propose solutions that are deployed, for the most part, as an extension of the right to be forgotten as provided for by the EU draft Regulation on personal data protection.
From the right to be forgotten to forgetting our rights
The rising wave of inactive accounts has quickly forced digital service providers to consider a proper alternative to the management of posthumous profiles. Should accounts remain accessible at that point? Facebook refuses to grant full access to profiles to family members of a deceased user unless a documented instruction of the latter explicitly says so. It also allows the possibility to simply delete the account or create a virtual memorial out of it, a sort of “web cemetery”. Google, on the other hand, has established a feature called “inactive account manager” which consists in planning your digital afterlife by choosing to delete your account after a previously selected time of inactivity or by nominating trusted contacts to receive data related to you.
This brings us to the heritage aspect of digital assets. Digital inheritance, including both the transmission of digital assets and the right to use them, depends to a large extent on the policy set up by each digital service provider. While Facebook and Google provide users with the possibility of maintaining connection with their digital life after physical death – by transforming the account into a memorial site or by offering the chance to write a personal digital legacy – other companies have chosen a more conservative position when it comes to ownership rights. Mention may be made here, by way of example, of Apple’s decision to refuse Bruce Willis’ right to bequeath his extensive iTunes collection to his daughters. Facebook has just decided to go a step further by announcing a major change in the way they deal with people who pass on. Facebook users can now through a new “legacy contact” feature designate a friend or family member to take over their account when they’re gone.
Approaching the question of digital legacy from a legal perspective appears to be a delicate matter, especially given web actors’ divergent vision of the subject. However, local solutions have begun to emerge: there are now nearly 10 states in the US that have enacted laws on digital property management. An important update to be noted is the adoption, on July 2014, of the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act by the Uniform Law Commission. In an effort to further the project, Jason Mazzone, an American professor of law, emphasized the need to protect digital heritage through a federal law. Despite all efforts, a uniform worldwide solution seems to be the only adequate answer. Perhaps it is time to consider the creation of a central-managed organization similar to the ICANN that can assure a global coordination on the matter…
If the right to be forgotten is strictly circumscribed, our right to be remembered is still within our grasp. It’s up to each one of us to choose between preserving our post-mortem reputation and heritage online or letting inertia lead the system to our digital suicide.
So take some time to address the issue. Because we’re all made of flesh and data. After all, it’s a matter of e-mortality!