Stop and think for a minute about what would happen if you die suddenly. Say, today or tomorrow. Your world would end but Facebook's world would just keep on truckin', and that means your Facebook page would become more than just a profile: it would become a place where grieving friends and family members gather to offer condolences and revisit precious memories. It's weird to think about, sure, but that's just the ways things are these day, right?
Now lawmakers are going a step further by grappling with whether "digital assets" such as your photos, messages, posts and other elements of your Facebook profile should be treated just like your real-world estate (yes, we love the idea of calling our our mattress, book of weird doodles and collection of chipped mugs our "estate"). When you die, you personal affects become the property of your beneficiaries, including your embarrassing high school diaries and the contents of your bedside drawer. In today's Facebook age, should your family have the same access to your private Facebook property?
When Karen Williams' 22-year-old son died in a 2005 motorcycle accident, she wanted to preserve her son's full profile assets and to get full access to her son's account. She even figured out his password, but Facebook locked her out, citing company policy. Even after Williams sued and won, she never received full access she was looking for and the account was eventually deactivated, along with all its photos and posts. (Now, Facebook will permanently "memorialize" your profile if presented with an obituary or other proof of death, which means, among other things, that your friends won't be encouraged to "reconnect" with you on the site. Awkward.)
Karen's experience prompted the Oregon legislature to take up the issue of revising the ancient Stored Communications Act of 1986, which prohibits companies from sharing a person's information even if requested in a last will and testament. So far, pushback from the tech industry has stalled the Oregon initiative, but five states already have some form of digital assets laws in place, including Oklahoma, which already allows estate lawyers to access social media accounts.
As a memorial to a person's memory, Facebook is chillingly perfect: it mimics the timeline of a life so well it can almost seem to fill the missing space where someone used to be. And we know that while the landscapes of our online identities continue to evolve, there'll come a day when a last will and testament will need to address the online world as well as the real one. But we just need to say one thing:
Moms, we love you. But please don't read our Facebook chats or look at photos you shouldn't after we die. You will regret it.