The Daily Illini has a great piece about Jason Mazzone‘s analysis of an underappreciated problem: what happens to your Facebook content when you die? At the moment, the answer depends on an unpredictable hodgepodge of state probate law, private law via the social network’s Terms of Service, and the decedent’s foresight in providing her heirs with her usernames and passwords. (Note that the last is often a violation of the network’s ToS – self-help simply isn’t allowed.) Jason notes that the rather rough solutions proffered by the services themselves are often unsatisfactory, if not offensive, to the relatives of the deceased user. His paper, Facebook’s Afterlife, has a sobering set of examples, and of the difficult social and familial issues that make a one-size-fits-all solution unacceptable.
Jason makes a compelling case for the need for federal law to enter the breach. Private ordering works poorly given that people do not always plan for distribution of real assets (how many die intestate?), and that social networks have huge advantages given the power of network effects (and their ability to unilaterally alter terms). Relying upon state law would burden social networks, who would have to deal with 50+ legal regimes. While some states have begun to pass specialized statutes to deal with these problems, the laws are untested, and the patchwork problem remains. A federal bill would provide certainty for all involved, and given the political strength of Silicon Valley, it would likely impose minor burdens at worst.
Thinking about death is unpleasant. Thinking about having your Facebook Timeline, in all its carefully-considered glory, frozen forever may be even more so. Jason Mazzone has started a valuable conversation about our on-line personae.