When a loved one dies, Facebook gives friends and family the option to memorialize that person's profile. But what happens if you want to take over that person's online content? In that situation, things get trickier.
Memorializing an account results in Facebook preventing anyone from logging on to a deceased person's accounts. This also means that no new friends can be added, photos and posts will be viewable by those they were shared with in the first place and, most importantly, the recently departed will not pop up in features like "People You May Know."
Alternatively, Facebook also gives relatives the option of permanently deleting the deceased individual’s profile.
Before the company takes any action on a deceased person's account, however, they require that a loved one submit tangible proof—an online obituary, for example. It's a thorough process, but it's straightforward.
When it comes to asking Facebook for that person's content, the situation isn't so simple.
"We take our responsibility to protect the privacy of people use Facebook very seriously," the site's FAQ segment on requesting content reads. "We are only able to consider requests for account contents of a deceased person from an authorized representative."
"The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order. Keep in mind, sending a request or filing the required documentation does not guarantee that we will be able to provide you with the content of the deceased person's account."
Should a loved one choose to file a request with Facebook, they'll be required to submit a legal document—a will or a durable power of attorney—and the aforementioned court order via mail. Even then, the social media company once again reiterates the fact that this won't necessarily result in them handing over any information.
Why does Facebook make it so hard for the grieving to get access to the deceased's data? The Stored Communications Act, a federal law enacted in 1986 meant to bolster an extend Fourth Amendment protections of right to privacy to the digital realm.
Some states like Oregon have tried to pass legislation that makes it easier for family members to obtain the digital assets of those that have passed away, but tech industry groups like TechNet , whose clients include Google and Microsoft, have declawed any meaningful legislation by arguing that federal law would trump anything passed by a state.
For Karen Williams, a mother who lost her 22-year-old son in a motorcycle accident in 2005 and is the inspiration behind the proposed Oregon law, this isn't particularly comforting.
"If this were a box of letters under his bed, no one would have thought twice," she told NPR.
Unless Congress updates the Stored Communications Act, nothing will really change. A press secretary for Senator Mark Pryor, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, told NPR that there are no current plans to introduce any proposals pertaining to digital assets.
Facebook isn't just tightfisted with the content of a person who has passed away. In the past, the company has used the Stored Communications Act to justify their decision not to hand over data to a public defender representing an Oregon man charged with murder.
Photo via Spencer E. Holtaway/Flickr