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Illinois Prof Calls for a Federal Law To Safeguard Digital Afterlives 82

An anonymous reader writes "A new paper from Professor Jason Mazzone at the University of Illinois calls for federal laws to regulate what happens to digital accounts after the account holder's death. Mazzone argues that Facebook and other online services have policies for deceased users' accounts that do not adequately protect the individual property and privacy interests at stake. The full text of the paper (called "Facebook's Afterlife") is also available: "
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Illinois Prof Calls for a Federal Law To Safeguard Digital Afterlives

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  • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:09PM (#41496511)

    And I mean, comprehensive deletion.

    Outside of nefarious uses, the information of a dead person is of no pactical value to facebook or its advertising customers. Dead people don't buy anything.

    As such, it is a cost center to retain the information of dead people. They should eliminate all such data, to keep a high relevancy with thir advertising customers, and avoid having stale and inaccurate data to sell.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      And since this is so obvious from a business standing, we don't really need any legislation to encourage it.

      • by jhoegl ( 638955 ) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @12:26AM (#41496819)

        And since this is so obvious from a business standing, we don't really need any legislation to encourage it.

        Oh man, good joke.
        Just like when businesses used toxic chemicals to conduct their business and let it slide off into the creek/river.
        Just like when coal companies cleaned up the coal dust because it caused health issues and made cities look bad.
        Right... I trust businesses to do only one thing... keep their wallets fat so the little that we peons do get when it trickles down, makes us just happy we have a job.
        19th century here we come!

        • by Z34107 ( 925136 )

          How did you manage to reply to a post without reading any part of it? Unless you're implying Facebook having stale accounts is just as bad as flaming rivers... in which case, get some perspective.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            What he did was make use of analogies. In fact, if corporations are perfectly willing to do those things, I'm sure they'd be more than willing to commit lesser evils. There was no direct comparison anywhere.

            Well, that all depends on whether or not you think that this is an evil action, but that's not the point.

            • by Z34107 ( 925136 )

              It was suggested that deleting the data would be more profitable for Facebook. Jhoegl thought "therefore, they won/t, because pollution!" followed logically. You decided this was an "analogy," rather than a profound failure of comprehension or logic.

              • "It was suggested that deleting the data would be more profitable for Facebook."

                On the internet, not only nobody knows you're a dog, nobody also knows you're dead.

            • by isorox ( 205688 )

              Analogies are only allowed on slashdot if they involve a car

    • by Anubis IV ( 1279820 ) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:24PM (#41496599)

      And yet, grieving relatives are likely susceptible targets for all sorts of different advertising that can still be targeted at them based on inferred interests they may share with the deceased. Call me cynical, but I'm sure they can come up with plenty of business reasons for keeping around data on a deceased person. Not only that, but they need to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent deletions from occurring prematurely, such as an ex using private information to signal that you are dead, otherwise they may open themselves up to all sorts of problems if they go around deleting user information.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Or the fun one is just require X percent of your friend list to declare you dead after not being logged in for x weeks, you're automatically deleted/'retired'/whatever.

        Without the aforementioned safeguard, it'd become even more fun when teenagers use it to 'murder' someone socially by collectively claiming they're dead and thus getting their account frozen/deleted.

        With the login safeguard the account can be flagged when people know they're deceased, but stay active if another family member/close friend has

    • by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:27PM (#41496613)

      Outside of nefarious uses, the information of a dead person is of no pactical value to facebook or its advertising customers. Dead people don't buy anything.

      But their shopping habits can still be used to predict what the living will buy.

      To me the bigger question is things like the ownership of games on steam, your magic the gathering online card collection, your MMO account, and so forth. These things have value, and the parasitic EULA's claiming you don't have ownership of anything while the main sites flog you to "buy! buy! buy!"notwithstanding its clear that the survivors will often have a very real interest in these things. My kids have characters on my MMO account. My entire family plays my steam games. I never got into MTGO precisely because of the ephemeral nature of the cards... but lots of other people do have valuable collections.

      If anything we should have laws to ensure this stuff does get passed to the survivors without hassle.

      • If anything we should have laws to ensure this stuff does get passed to the survivors without hassle.

        Just give your passwords to whoever you want. Put it in your will if you must, but more laws? No thanks.

        • by Gerzel ( 240421 )

          Almost certainly against the EULAs of most companies. At best you are renting those online games now.

          • If the person that agreed* to the EULA is no longer living, how can they possibly be in violation of said EULA?

            * Nobody reads them anyways
            • by Gerzel ( 240421 )

              They can't but their Will and inheritors can.

              Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can give the Golden Gate Bridge away in my last will and testament.

    • No! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <> on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:44PM (#41496675)

      I don't want my Facebook deleted in the event of my death! My friends would lose all of the photos I posted of them! And all the comments and links and everything I posted on their timelines. And what if they want to come back years later and reminisce about old times. There are lots of reasons living customers might want to look at the information. Wouldn't it be better to freeze the account?

      • Death, pshaw. (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Had a friend who commented heavily on my photos. We had a number of back and forth conversations.

        He then deleted his Facebook account because Facebook is clearly evil, and Google totally isn't.

        He's since come back to Facebook, and I've re-friended him, however:

        It still looks like I'm a freaking schizo, because half the comments on my photos appear to be me talking to myself.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          And this friend.... could anyone else see him?

      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 29, 2012 @12:24AM (#41496811)

        "I don't want my Facebook deleted in the event of my death!"

        And if your friends don't want their photo kept after your death? What if they want to forget you? What if they want to move on? What would you have, a friends list and a dead friends list, and watch the dead friends list get longer and longer, and the friends list get shorter and shorter?

        Facebook: Bobby5765 had died, we've automatically moved him to the dead friends list.

        1 year later,

        Facebook: Bobby5765 died one year ago, why not come visit his page, he'd have liked that.

        2 months later
        Facebook: Was Bobby5765's using his real name?

        3 months later
        Facebook: Did Bobby5765 have any relatives? Why not connect with them by selecting them from his contacts list below.

        4 months later
        Facebook: Bobby5765's friends indicated you're his son, we're sorry for your loss, why not remember Bobby5765 by visiting old photographs of him.

        Moving on is important. What you want done with YOUR digital data after your death should be an account choice you make, not another data mining opportunity for Facebook. Default should be 'delete after 6 months'. Then your friends can archive anything they want on their site or computer.
        What I don't want to see, is Facebook milking dead relatives for marketing purposes.

        • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

          Not every friend is going to know to archive the data on their end. If they want to forget and move on, then they can do the same thing they do when they want to forget and move on from a bad relationship. Unfriend. Done. Maybe set up a system where anyone who unfriends you after death can refriend you at will, in case years later they feel like reminiscing.

          What's the rationale behind not keeping a frozen account for posterity? Is disk space really at such a premium? Obviously Facebook shouldn't send

        • If you don't want to see information about someone, you can delete them from your friends list. Though if their account were no longer changing, you'd never see updates from them anyway. It's unlikely you'd see Facebook presenting the information you've suggested since it would be really tacky and a PR nightmare.

          The present generation doesn't keep physical or even digital photo albums the same way past generations did. If you automatically delete this stuff, you will delete important historical information.

        • by Instine ( 963303 ) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @08:17AM (#41498011)
          Then block it. Or stop using facebook. But it sure as hell won't be the only reminder. Or the 'worst'. I refer you to my earlier post on how precious a late loved one's FB account can be. FB could be smarter bout reminders, but I've found it by far the most considerate info holder of my wife's (in this respect). It allows you to register the profile as being of someone who has died, with very little fuss, many nice touches happened. E.g. She's still in my friends list, but if I start typing her first name in a post, it won't auto suggest it. This is a very nice touch indeed. Very considerate. Where as the local government might send me a form requiring her signiture to confirm she's no longer requiring service X. Srsly. Despite being told why we needed to cancel. And having multiple other similar notifications. She still gets more mail than me. Every day... So no, I don't agree with this.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      This isn't just about social media accounts (although I could probably care less if they were deleted). What about digital media accounts like Steam, Amazon and iTunes? If I die, can I hand these accounts and their associated content over to my family?

    • Outside of nefarious uses, the information of a dead person is of no pactical value to facebook or its advertising customers. Dead people don't buy anything.

      Someone should tell that. ;)

    • by Bronster ( 13157 )

      Similarly when a person dies, their house should be burned down immediately along with all their belongings.

    • You don't think that information may be valuable to their family? Even something as simple and ordinary as a stupid little chat video can be valuable when you have lost someone, I recorded my late sister's telephone messages for my mom who cherishes them to this very day because my sister was a very shy person and other than some photos of her with the boys and a few 8mm home movies from her childhood there wasn't any real video or audio left so even something that trivial was valuable.

      I think far too many

    • by Instine ( 963303 ) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @08:03AM (#41497975)
      I can't tell you how important my late wife's facebook account is to me. It is betond money. I realize I'm not 'entitled' to it. And that one day it will die too. Maybe at the hands of a troll (they already hacked her twitter acc to do pharma spam). Or a data center outage. Or a change in policy. Whatever. Nothing is for ever.

      But for the time it is there, it is greater than any scrap book, photo album or other personal treasure. Neither of us care greatly about advertisers using the data. It is a detailed, personal record of the happiest time I'm ever likely to have. So deletion would not get my vote! If it were deleted I would certainly want to download a copy first. I know I'm not entitled to it, but again, it's what I'd want...
    • the information of a dead person is of no pactical value to facebook or its advertising customers

      Yes you are right, because no one looks up information on dead people. When someone dies, no one ever bothers to visit any pages that have info about that person.
      Facebook doesn't just sell stuff to you, it sells stuff to your friends.

  • Here's my solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <> on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:13PM (#41496547) Homepage Journal
    I just don't put the only accessible copies of important files (even photographs and blog entries) in the hands of facebook, google, or anyone of the like. Files are on my own systems (including my own webserver). Why should I trust those other sites to act in my best interest, whether I am alive or not?
    • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:23PM (#41496595)

      Quite right. I do that too.

      (Ignore social networking, and run a local fileserver on a nonstandard port)

      Sadly, many ISPs, mine included, simply do not like the basic idea behind the internet, and are very displeased when they discoveer people with consmer accounts hosting servers, even puny ones with essentially no traffic, like mine. Many even actively attempt to frustrate such efforts.

      Such is the world it seems.

      • Sadly, many ISPs, mine included, simply do not like the basic idea behind the internet, and are very displeased when they discoveer people with consmer accounts hosting servers, even puny ones with essentially no traffic, like mine. Many even actively attempt to frustrate such efforts.

        Fortunately, my ISP doesn't care. I run my web server at home on port 80 and ssh on 22. They've never had any issue with it, although my web server serves very few visitors. I do push a fair bit of traffic through ssh and they've never had a problem with that, either.

        Although some times, my system actually denies more traffic than it receives (stupid hackers think they'll get in as root, even though I plainly state in the sshd message that it is disabled). That doesn't seem to bother my ISP either.

        • No hackers think they'll get in as root, it's just all automated. If you put up a Linux machine you start getting people trying to run IIS exploits against it even though they could fingerprint it and not go through the trouble. It's faster to just let the exploits fire than to wait for fingerprinting.

          • No hackers think they'll get in as root, it's just all automated

            That is true, the frequency is too high (and regular) for it to be someone sitting at their PC trying root passwords. I can say, though, that the attacks are more often *nix-oriented than IIS-oriented. Root attempts are frequent, administrator attempts come very rarely. Toor is seen often, too. Even when I see white pages attacks that start with aaron and go to zelda, I see root but not administrator.

            It's faster to just let the exploits fire than to wait for fingerprinting.

            Very true. I've often wondered how they find my system as a target, though. Whether they find it fir

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why does everyone think there needs to be some Federal mandate regulating every single damn issue imaginable?

    The reason why we have so many big corporations with no competition is because the regulations prevent any new competition from coming in.

    The *last* thing we need is more Federal Laws!!!

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Exactly what I was thinking. Keep the laws few, sane, and enforce them vigorously. This is a joke.
    • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Friday September 28, 2012 @11:46PM (#41496685) Homepage Journal

      Probably because so many corporations would sell babies for dog food if there wasn't a law that says otherwise. There are many bad behaviors that at a personal level are covered by common decency but corporations are functionally sociopathic and only respond to laws. Then there's the people (many on /.) that for some reason think that's just fine.

      • by tbird81 ( 946205 )

        Bullshit. They're not all Apple.

        Companies are run by people, they're led by people, and people decide what happens. If an arrogant sociopath runs a company stacked with members of his cult, a company may behave in a terrible manner.

        But Google doesn't have any laws stopping it from operating in China - it forgoes all that money out of principle of refusing censorship.
        Then there's the drug companies refusing to sell propofol to people for the death penalty.

        My boss takes a chance and hires some people who need

        • by tbird81 ( 946205 )

          * - they behave that way only if we let them.

        • they need to be held to account legally and ethically instead of excusing them by saying "corporations are functionally sociopathic" - only if we let them.

          Hold them accountable to what? The regulations we don't need? Ever see a rich or powerful man just own up to his organizations BS...? For every 1 you see there's probably 999,999 who took the "FU I'm not going to be held accountable path" The only way we can hold people accountable is if we have guidelines ie regulation that we can point to and say we as a nation find your behavior unacceptable and you need to make recompense.

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Your boss sounds like a good person. If only they all were. Is he the boss of a public corporation or a company?

          The corporation refusing to sell propofol for executions probably doesn't want people to ask for something else whenever the doctor suggests using the 'death juice'. They have enough bad publicity from Michael Jackson.

          Dutchmann got it in one, they can only be held accountable legally if there is a law. Passing a law and then enforcing it is how we as a society don't let them.

      • Corporations respond to people and their wallets--why do you people always try to portray corporations as a Sidley Whiplash figure and not an organization composed of real people that responds to the needs or desires of real people? Because it's not simple enough?

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Because that is how they behave. They routinely behave in ways that an individual would not.

          It has been demonstrated in experiments that where the decision and carrying out the decision are done by separate people they are collectively sociopathic. Each rationalizes that the other actually committed the bad act.

          Ethical beings don't NEED to see a person's wallet to behave properly.

    • Oh, look, another Libertarian defender of his glorious corporate masters!

    • by Z34107 ( 925136 )

      Who gets your iTunes account after you die? Or you WoW account? Or Steam games? I think we could use some precedent for what happens to licenses/accounts/other things wrapped in the trappings of intellectual property after one's death.

      Something like "you must allow a deceased to will his MP3s," that makes licenses more transferable, can't possibly benefit established monopolies.

    • Interestingly enough, this is relevant to my studies. Although my studies focus more on the accounting/legal aspect of it, we can safely generalise to a certain extent, since the those regulators are obviously affected by the culture. So allow me a little lecture. (Don't worry, there will be a tl;dr at the end)

      Basically, we learn about rules and regulations, and approaches to it. And if we distill it, we can come down to two basic approaches: Rules-based and Principles-based. And frankly, the difference bet

    • the regulations should basically state

      1 Each company should have a standard "Trouble Ticket" of type "Account Holder Deceased"
      2 A Person having a valid power of attorney or other similar document shall be able to (when Proof of Death can be shown) takeover the account and or merge the assets.
      3 in cases of Social Media the account should be flagged as belonging to a Deceased person (btw having flags for Fictional and Corporate Personas would also be a good idea)

      and that just about covers everything needed (e

  • link []

    Facebook's Afterlife
    Jason Mazzone
    University of Illinois College of Law

  • I'm not sure the right answer is to make things harder than they are already to deal with an account for someone who is dead.

    What a huge mess, people these days have accounts everywhere. It seems like what is really needed is a dead person "cleaning" service to go through the deceased persons computer, figure out what accounts they had and then go hoover anything from them the family might want to save, then delete the account. You don't want to make it impossible for such a service to exist, as most peop

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My mother died last year, and since she never told anyone her Facebook password, her account is still open.

      Personally, I'm glad Facebook hasn't auto-deleted it. Family and friends still post to her wall on holidays, and her birthday, etc. Of course, she will never see these messages, but it makes the rest of us happy to be able to leave these messages, and to be able to still read her posts.

      It's like a "gone, but not forgotten" type of thing.

  • I am actually pretty sure that there is no federal guidelines on privacy after death in real life either. I am not a lawyer, but it seem like personal information which is privileged (legal, medical, etc.) can only be sealed with a court order. Which means that, by default, it does not survive an individual. Why would digital information be more privileged than, for example, psychiatric records?
  • Just what we need! More federal laws! Especially ones that regulate free web services. That would be a great benefit to us all.

    Note to the sarcastically imparied: please don't reply to this comment!

    • And what a quagmire to prove someone really is dead. Small startups would have a bitch of a time with that. Thanks, crusading do-gooders, for fighting for the dignity of people that no longer even exist!

      The left needs to focus on issues instead of this ridiculous nonsense that masquerades as a problem or issue we need to deal with. It's not, it's all just riding on irrational sentiment.

  • by Kleen13 ( 1006327 ) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @01:03AM (#41496915)
    It was Facebook that really got my Mom into this whole "Computer thing". Since she passed, we have used her account as a hub for pictures, gatherings, and contacts. I see the point of eventually deleting her account, but it was surprising how many images and data that was singularly relevant to my family that was on her account that isn't recorded elsewhere... I would never have known the depth of her digital involvement if I didn't review her account. It's been priceless for my family. My two cents.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Paypal has gone to great lengths to not legally be a bank. At a bank, or brokerage firm, or other places that I park money in, they have all given me a form to declare a beneficiary. Does Paypal do that?

    Generally, in the State of California (and many/most? other states), unclaimed accounts in banks, ets, are turned over to the state. I found a few thousand dollars in insurance payments (I'm a doctoid), some going back 20 years.

    Also, once someone dies, bank accounts etc. are frozen (or should be) to new

  • I think the policy should confirm and enforce that all entities need to abide by the wishes of the deceased (without reason). I don't think we can simply come to a single standard act to {delete, freeze, publicitize} the information.

    Then, close the policy with clauses that outline in the event nothing is in the will, the information is available via common law practices (for example a spouse having access to a safety deposit box).

    If I want my account deleted, so be it. If I want it open to the public,

  • by the very nature of the final word, this time around none of the account holders will get a chance to complain []... posthumously.

    So is the next move after "Would you please rat out your friend for using a nickname?" [] possibly going to be a particularly considerate pop-up like "Has this friend of yours gone belly-up?"
  • If it's on the internet, it's not 'yours', it's someone elses. Your mmo account data, fb pics, mp3s "bought" on itunes are not owned by you, they're leased. Want to own yoururchased itunes collection? Then burn them to disc, that removes the copy protection, and now you own them, and can do what you want with them. Trusting anything "cloud based" to always be there for you is being ignorant. Don't like it, don't use that service.

"How many teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "FIFTEEN!! YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?"