Most people who go online have a lot of digital content that will continue to live on even after they die. That's why Facebook is adding a new "legacy contact" option for users who want to control their accounts when they're no longer around.
If a Facebook user dies, the individual's legacy contact will be able to write a post to appear at the top of the account's Timeline, approve new friend requests and update the account's profile picture and cover photo. However, users can also specify if they want their Facebook accounts permanently deleted after they die.
The change is aimed at giving users more say in their content after they pass away and doing more to help grieving friends and family members, according to Facebook. Previously, after the company had been informed of a user's death, Facebook changed the account to "memorialized" status that allowed people to continue viewing content but didn't give anyone the option to continue managing the account.
As people's online personas have become more complicated -- with e-mails, blog posts, comments, Tweets and other social media activity -- so, too, have the questions about how to handle such data after death. Over the past decade or so, these questions have often been resolved in the courts.
For example, after Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth was killed in Iraq in 2004, his parents tried to access his Yahoo e-mails but were told by the company that his content was non-transferable under its terms of service agreement. A probate court in Michigan eventually ruled in the parents' favor and Yahoo provided them with a CD of their son's e-mails, although it did not provide them with the password for accessing their son's account.
Likewise, early on, Facebook offered few options for maintaining a person's online account after death, and initially deleted such content 30 days after learning of someone's passing. Following a campaign by friends and classmates of the students killed in a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, Facebook adopted a policy of permanently memorializing a person's account after death, i.e., allowing the content to remain but not allowing any changes.
'There is More We Can Do'
The new policy of allowing updates by a designated legacy contact is going into effect first in the U.S. and will eventually be expanded to other countries, according to Product Manager Vanessa Callison-Burch, Content Strategist Jasmine Probst and Software Engineer Mark Govea. The change was made after Facebook officials spoke with people who had lost loved ones and were concerned about how their online content would be managed, according to a blog post written by the trio.
"By talking to people who have experienced loss, we realized there is more we can do to support those who are grieving and those who want a say in what happens to their account after death," they wrote. "We hope this work will help people experience loss with a greater sense of possibility, comfort and support."
While a legacy contact will be able to make certain changes to a person's account, the contact will not be able to log in as that person or view any private messages, according to the blog post. However, the contact will be able to download an archive of the posts, photos and profile of the deceased.