Who owns your digital remains after you die? As more people live more of their lives in the virtual world of the Internet, states must grapple with that question.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 65 percent of adult American Internet users participated in social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and MySpace in 2011. Three-fifths of Internet users under 30 access these sites daily. Only about a third of Baby Boomers were daily users two years ago, but that grew by 60 percent from 2010.
More than 167 million Americans are on Facebook alone. Digital phones allow savvy users to record their lives and the world around them, and to post photos, video, and commentary online instantly. Collectively, they share billions of images, stories, hopes, dreams, and fears with friends, relatives, and often the world.
But what happens to these virtual scrapbooks, photo albums, video logs, and diaries after you’re gone? In most states, including Ohio and Michigan, they remain in the control of the company that operates the social network.
The policy at Facebook (other sites have similar policies) is to “memorialize” the pages of people who have died. Some information is removed, and some access is restricted to friends. The wall is left up for memorials.
Facebook will download the data from the account to heirs, but only if state law requires it or if the deceased gave his or her consent before death. But no one — not even a parent or spouse — is allowed unrestricted access to the site.
Some people want to change that. Social-network pages are the digital equivalent of the memorabilia people previously stored in boxes in attics, in closets, and under beds. Advocates plausibly argue that data on those pages should be part of a deceased person’s estate.
In addition to being the tangible remains of a life, social-network pages often include information that even parents, siblings, spouses, and friends weren’t aware of. That information can help the grieving process, speed healing, and bring people closer to a deceased loved one than they were in life.
Oklahoma has a digital-estate law. Nebraska is considering one based on the Oklahoma model.
Because Twitter and other social media cut across state lines and national boundaries, federal legislation to govern digital inheritance may be necessary. But with millions of Ohioans and Michiganians already storing part of their lives on these sites, lawmakers here should not wait for Washington to act.