New Issues for the Facebook Graveyard?

Young woman using cell phone to send text message on social network at night. Closeup of hands with computer laptop in background
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 06, 2019 1:00 PM

In a few decades, Facebook will have more dead users than live ones.

Researchers say that is bad news for social media networks and their data. It will create policy and legal questions about who has the right to use it -- especially when the data outlives the users who created it. Historians, in particular, will want access to the information for educational purposes. Everybody else, except the survivors, will be history.

Becoming History

Carl Ohman, lead author of a study from the Oxford Internet Institute, says the number of dead Facebook users could outnumber the living by 2070. He also predicts that at least 1.4 billion Facebook users (not to mention almost everybody on the planet) will die before 2100. "These statistics give rise to new and difficult questions surrounding who has the right to this data, how should it be managed in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased and its use by future historians to understand the past," he said.

Co-author David Watson says Facebook has assembled the largest "archive of human behavior and culture" in history. Major public policy concerns are at stake, reports the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog. "Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history," Watson said. "It is also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history."

A Larger Legacy

The researchers used a combination of data, including projected mortality and population statistics. Facebook disagrees with the predictions, but acknowledges a bigger issue. "We have a deep respect for our unique position in people's lives and take our role in the conversation on building legacy in a digital age seriously," the company told Time. Facebook does not delete deceased users' pages. If the company knows, they are transitioned into memorial-style pages. Otherwise, they will live on as long as Facebook does -- First Amendment, copyright,  privacy, and inheritance rights included.

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