Digital Inheritance: preserve, profit or delete?

When you die, who gets your Facebook?

This may seem a silly, or meaningless, question, but it is starting to take on a deep significance. There has been an increasing number of reports over the past couple of years of bereaved relatives facing real difficulty trying to get access to the social media accounts of the deceased, or of trying to inherit their digital collections of books, photographs, and music. Even if passwords are available, there may not be full control over accounts and materials. And, there are even new questions of etiquette: if a deceased friend’s social media presence remains after they are gone, at what point is it acceptable to unfriend them? There is no doubt that ‘digital hauntings’ – continuing appearances on an individual’s profile in digital media long after their demise – can be source of genuine distress to the bereaved.

These points were discussed in an article on the technology section of the BBC news website [ Plea for people to create ‘digital legacy’ letter], which reported suggestions that people should be encouraged to leave a sealed ‘digital legacy’ letter, including the passwords giving access to all their digital services, and instructions for what should be done with the material in them. The article was prompted by research carried out for the Cooperative Funeralcare organisation, which showed that many people had encountered difficulties in dealing with the digital affairs of a deceased relative.

Suggestions along the same lines have been made in the past year by a number of organisations, from Saga to the Law Society. We have even seen the emergence of companies, such as Planned Departure in the UK, whose whole business is providing advice on the creation of such documents.

There are essentially two issues. First, the need of bereaved relatives to have access to, or to be able to delete, the personal memories instantiated in social media. Second, the desire of surviving relatives to inherit digital books, music, games, etc. which may have a considerable monetary value. There may also be financial value in ‘digital property’ such as domain names registered to an individual, and this financial element will increase greatly if digital currencies such as Bitcoin get greater usage.

The law, unfortunately, is far from clear on these matters. Individual social media accounts are generally regarded as personal by the providers, who mostly choose not to give access to anyone other than their deceased owner. If you have a collection of paper diaries, printed photographs, printed books or CDs, it is clear what happens to them on your death. Not so if your personal accounts, photos, books and music are kept in digital form in a service such as Facebook or iTunes. Living purchasers of Amazon e-books found this out when the company removed books from their Kindles without notice. And Apple, for one, has maintained that its iTunes accounts are personal to an individual and cannot be inherited.

The desire to allow ones’ digital presence to live on, transferred to others, is an interesting counterpoint of the idea of ‘digital suicide’, the ability to delete entirely one’s digital footprint. Both seem equally difficult to arrange, and – along with perennial concerns about privacy – indications of the difficulty of establishing control over personal presence in the digital world.

The technology companies are, perhaps rather belatedly coming to terms with this issue, with Google and Facebook, among others, both now offering users a degree of control; stipulating, for example, whether an account should be deleted on their death, or some degree of control passed to a named person. However, without some consistency between services, things will remain difficult for the bereaved. Another issue is the sheer number of online sites and services; how many of us keep track of our digital footprint? As a number of commentators on the BBC news site suggested, it may be more important to worry about the inability of companies to deal with things like electricity bills when a customer dies, before we get concerned about digital legacy. But as our lives are lived more and more online, this problem is only going to become more urgent and far-reaching.