News / Saskatoon

What happens to your social media when you die?

It's a topic few of us think about. What should happen to your social media accounts after you die?

Doug Surtees, an associate dean at the University of Saskatchewan’s law school and an expert in wills and contracts, says he's surprised to discover that when it comes to the Internet, the law has failed to catch up to today's technology.

At the Canadian Bar Association conference held in Saskatoon last month Surtees spoke about what happens to digital property after the owner passes away.

“Most of us have the view that we actually own the things that we have online and in reality we probably don’t,” said Surtees.

Users have a license to access information, he explained, which is dictated by the terms in a contract. These types of agreements aren't really up for negotiation because “if you want the service, you have to take the contract as it is.”

For social media accounts, this means that if a person doesn’t leave their username and password with a family member or friend, the data could remain online indefinitely.

“When the person dies, the rights to that digital information dies along with the person,” he said.

Twitter is among the most lenient of the major companies, he added, as inactive accounts are deleted over time. However, Facebook will only memorialize a page upon proof of death, allowing existing friends to still visit the page and see the deceased's pictures.

“The page cannot be altered if it’s memorialized,” said Surtees.

Another aspect of this issue, he continued, is with respect to music collections and e-book libraries.

“Right now when we buy music from iTunes, we agree by contract that we can upload that music onto five different devices,” he said. “But that’s not transferable, so when you die, if you have a mammoth music collection in iTunes, you could physically leave your iPad to somebody, but you cannot leave your right to have music downloaded in the event that iPad crashes.”

In order for this situation to improve, Surtees said the law has to change so that individuals can give specific instructions to the executors of their wills to either delete or share information.

One group that is working to move the issue forward is the Vancouver-based online advocacy group Open Media.

“An interesting idea being raised is that people could leave a sort of digital will, or outline of what they want to happen and what their preferences are with their social media accounts and their digital property,” said Open Media spokesman David Christopher.

Christopher added that Open Media has an ongoing project called Digital Future to pose this question to the public. “We’re going out to the public, not just here in Canada, but around the world, and asking them to share their vision of what the digital future should look like,” he said.

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