Broadly speaking, social media is now in its 12th year (measuring, quite arbitrarily, from the founding of Friendster in 2002) and it has quickly grown into a global phenomenon: over half the U.S. population is on social media, as well as one-quarter of the global population, with the latter set to rise to around a third by 2017.
Combine these numbers with certain ineluctable facts of the human condition — namely, that we all gonna die someday — and you end up with a growing conundrum when it comes to social media as a hybrid public-private good. What should happen to the social media profiles of the deceased? Who should control the profiles, including decisions about whether to maintain them or take them down?
Legislators in Delaware are moving to address these issues with the first state law that would allow people to leave social media profiles and other online accounts to their relatives in their wills. The law, called the “Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act,” would cover profiles and accounts on Facebook, iTunes, Google, and Amazon, as well as online banking accounts, accounts with Web hosting services, and similar services — requiring all these companies to change their terms of service to enable accounts to be passed between individuals (something they currently prohibit).
The list of online property that can be willed to others includes digital photos, artwork, music, and computer code. The law would also allow relatives or guardians of disabled people to oversee their social media accounts, with the consent of the account holder. Conversely, testators can also declare that an account should be closed, or left undisturbed and not accessed with the password.
All this sounds like a pretty good idea. However, as always in the social media universe, it’s not quite that simple: critics point out that the law could end up violating the privacy of the deceased’s online contacts, by giving family members access to correspondence without their permission. Of course I’m no legal expert, but seeking a historical analogy previously the same sort of risk would be involved with, say, someone leaving their print correspondence to a relative, library, or museum in their will: if that archive includes scandalous or damaging letters from some of their correspondents, well, that was a risk the correspondents took in writing them (which is why people sometimes specified “burn this letter,” or cautious testators order their papers destroyed).