Social media and the digital afterlife: Facebook’s new ‘legacy contact’ feature

Facebook is probably the most well-known social networking website, with in excess of one billion users worldwide.  This week it launched a new ‘legacy contact’ feature, but what does this mean for users and what problems might this create in the future?

The new feature, initially introduced in the US earlier this year, enables a user (provided they are over the age of eighteen) to appoint a so-called ‘legacy contact’ who will have the ability to manage a user’s account after death, once that account has been ‘memorialised’ by Facebook having been notified of the user’s death.  That legacy contact will be able to write posts on the user’s Facebook profile, for example a final message from the user or details of a memorial service.  They will be able to respond to new friend requests, add family members as new friends and, possibly most importantly of all, have the option to download a copy of what the user has shared on Facebook including photos and videos.  In an age where people rarely have traditional photo albums and social media accounts are their virtual photo albums, this archive will undoubtedly be of huge sentimental value to family and friends.

This change is important as it gives the user an element of control not previously available to them.  Until now, the position has been unclear as to how an account is to be managed after death and who owns and has access to the content – this is still the case for many online providers.  Privacy is often an overriding concern, particularly in the context of email accounts, and Facebook has addressed this by limiting the access a ‘legacy contact’ will have to a user’s account.  There will be no access to private messages or ability to edit what had been posted by the user during their lifetime.

In an age when most people have a digital presence and hold digital assets, the law is however playing catch up. Earlier this year, Mishcon de Reya commissioned a YouGov survey into awareness of digital rights and post-death access to, and ownership of, online accounts. This demonstrated a serious lack of understanding as to who owns digital content on death.  Whilst any move to give greater control to the user to manage their digital legacy is welcomed, there is a possible conflict between the so-named ‘legacy contact’ and the rights and duties of the person legally appointed to handle a deceased’s estate, as this may well not be the same person. An online photo album, for example, does not fit easily within traditional ideas of estate ‘assets’ but will have considerable emotional value nonetheless.  In the event that postings on a memorialised account cause distress to friends or family, who will take priority in making decisions about taking them down, for instance? We will need to wait and see how this tension plays out in practice.