The ghost of your life still resides on Facebook after death

Facebook is an extensive, seemingly bottomless anthology of inside jokes, cherished memories and life events. But what happens to your Facebook account when you die?

“There is little to no regulation that exists in this department,” said Jason Mazzone, law professor at the University. He is the author of “Facebook’s Afterlife,” a paper examining the control of social media sites over the pages of their deceased users, and proposing a federal law that standardizes a set plan of action for this situation.

“We’re in a period where technology has really gotten ahead of the laws that are in place,” Mazzone said. “I mean, 15 or 20 years ago, nobody had any reason to think about this issue.”

Today, over one billion people around the world use social networking websites, according to Comscore.com. Of these accounts, more than 30 million of them on Facebook are attributed to people who have died, also known as decedents, as stated in a Technorati.com article.

The current way that Facebook deals with accounts belonging to dead people is by “memorializing” the page, as Mazzone stated in his paper. This involves disabling much of the late user’s past posted content, but leaving the page open for friends to comment postmortem.

“When you’ve got something like (Facebook) that is intangible and really is not ... any value other than sentimental value, the courts and legislatures don’t have a good way of resolving those kinds of issues,” said Alfred Brophy, law professor at the University of North Carolina.

The main questions that arise are: Who has the ownership or copyright to the decedent’s page and information? What happens to the photos, links, posts and other content within the account? Where, if at all, does the law come in?

“A copyright exists at the moment of creation,” Mazzone said. “So as soon as you write something, put something on a page, or post something online ... the federal law says you obtain a copyright immediately.”

A copyright lasts throughout someone’s lifetime and 70 years afterward. Copyright can be bestowed upon someone else as granted in a will or within an estate, just like regular property or monetary inheritance.

“Facebook doesn’t purport to interfere with the actual copyright,” Mazzone added. “The problem, though, is how the person who inherits the copyright after you die, which the law says they can inherit, how they get their hands on the actual embodiment of the work.”

So even though a person can have copyright of certain material, they most likely won’t be able to actually acquire it themselves. Facebook collects this content and tucks it away in storage, in case it could ever come in handy in the future.

Since the information is all digital, the issue becomes hazy. There is not a tangible object that can simply be handed over to an heir.

“If you think about the way that we deal with people’s (physical) assets after they die, we have centuries of precedent of worked out rules for this,” said Derek Bambauer, associate professor of law at the University of Arizona. “We have rules about what happens if you have a will or if you don’t have a will, what happens if you have a family or if you don’t have a family, and so forth ... we haven’t done any of that work for the Internet yet.”

Since there is no such historical model for posthumous social media regulation, it will take time for laws to be put in place.

“There are states (that have) passed a law on this that ensures a right of access,” he said, those being Oklahoma and Idaho so far. “Well, (Mazzone) points out that having 50 different states try to address this problem might not be a good approach.”

Instead, Mazzone proposes that there be an all-encompassing federal law that sets a baseline for what should be done with a social networking profile after someone dies. Enacting such a law, however, could take years or even decades.

Until then, Brophy recommended taking the issue into your own hands. He suggested leaving the “permission and means of access” to social media and networking sites to those you trust. This way, if something happens to you, you’ll have someone who can access your accounts in order to retrieve certain content, information and postings that you added during your lifetime.

While there is no major federal law in place that addresses the issue of “Facebook Afterlives,” the subject matter will surely gain traction as more people continue to utilize social networks.

Reema can be reached at abiakar2@illinimedia.com.