A publication has predicted that as early as 2070 the number of Facebook profiles of deceased users will outweigh the number of profiles of alive people.

Carl J. Öhman and David Watson from the University of Oxford are the authors of a study in the Big Data & Society journal, looking at digital estates and identity, including data heritage from the use of social media sites such as Facebook, who also own Instagram.

The study utilised data from several sources including Facebook user growth and mortality and population rates to predict that the scales could be tipped more heavily towards deceased users within the next 50 years. Although the study admits it is probable that it will take longer it seems likely that that this will be the case by early in the 22nd century.

DEALING WITH DECEASED USER’S PROFILES

Facebook currently has a number of options with regards to deceased user profiles and users can prepare in advance for what they want to happen to their account once they pass away.

One option is to select a legacy contact where a user can select someone who can manage their memorialised account.

Users can also opt to delete their account upon their death although this does not apply to those under eighteen. Legal guardians and parents of users who pass away before eighteen have to request access, including supplying appropriate evidence and documentation. Understandably this safeguards against anyone accessing a minors account where they should not.

DATA LAWS

Under Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation an individual has the right to obtain a copy of their data held by companies or under Article 17, request that it is removed. However, this is only relevant to people who are alive and as such, offers no solution for inheritance matters or those who have not provided instructions on dealing with data post death.

In an effort to tackle these issues, various countries have implemented new legislation. For example, in Canada,  the deceased’s executor can access digital assets by default and in France users can decide how their data should be held following their death.

As discussed here on IP Harbour,  the German Federal Court of Justice made a landmark ruling in 2108 stating that heirs should have access to their deceased relatives’ data including Facebook accounts.

MOVING FORWARD

In relation to the responsibilities of social media platforms to safeguard more adequately, especially the vulnerable, changes are in the making like the government’s Online Harms White Paper and Social Media Code of Practice as discussed by this site here.

However, changes to assist in clarifying access to digital assets after a person passes away are still desperately needed, especially if the study by Öhman and Watson is accurate, as cases will arise on an increasing level and certainty will be needed.