The fate of our personal data after death has become both a legal and economic issue. Online businesses such as Facebook and Google want to be able to monetize even dead users, while some families who want to erase accounts may find it problematic.
PARIS — There are 580,000 funerals every year in France, and every year 23 million chrysanthemums are laid on graves to mark All Saints Day. In other words, the mourning industry is huge, generating between 2 billion and 5 billion euros a year. The market has led to the creation of many startups. For example, it's now possible to follow a burial via video conference and to scatter ashes in the upper stratosphere. For these companies, death may represent a business opportunity, but for other web-based concerns, it's an economic, legal and societal conundrum: What should we do with the digital data of dead people?
After all, keeping all of it has a cost. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 0.8% of the population dies every year. If we apply that percentage to Facebook"s 1.49 billion accounts, that's 11 million users who die every year. Their data continues to be stored, but without generating any more advertising revenue.
Destroying the data is similarly problematic. On what legal ground, and after what amount of time? Websites could risk family members filing complaints for the destruction of their loved ones' digital footprints.
Sometimes the opposite happens, when the children or parents of a deceased person try in vain to have a relative's profile removed. "We've had a few cases of families suffering from the online presence on a social network of one of their children who committed suicide," the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) says.
And, says Martine Roberge, an ethnology professor at Laval University in Quebec and author of Rites of passage in the 21st century, "The online and unsolicited perpetuation of a loved one can obstruct the mourning process."
But from an anthropological viewpoint, conserving and transmitting this data to descendants are important for two reasons: to allowing successors to be part of a lineage and to give the deceased a "post-mortem future."
"The generational continuity is even more necessary today for children because couples are more fragile," says Martine Segalen, an experienced French ethnology professor at the Paris West University Nanterre La Défense. "This continuity used to be done through the transmission of a legacy. We now pass on memories."
Mankind is the only animal that buries its dead. It created graves in the hope for eternity and to extend the participation of its deceased into community life. "Traditionally, cemeteries served as a place for remembrance in public," Roberge says. "Now we have virtual graves."
Facebook gives users the option to designate someone to manage their profiles in the event of death, at which point profiles can become like commemorations. With Google, users can designate "trustworthy contacts," who are able to access all or some of our data after we die. But these decisions are self-interested. They firstly aim to prevent disputes, but they also have a financial dimension. On Facebook, unlike an inactive account, a memorial brings in people, traffic that can then be monetized with advertising.
"Without precise regulations, Internet users won't be able to prevent certain websites from making money off the data of deceased people," says Stéphan Denoyes, an attorney specializing in online law.
Paul-Olivier Gibert, the head of the French Association of Correspondents for the Protection of Personal Data, agrees. "The more time passes, the more deceased people will leave behind them digital footprints and the more this data will pose problems," he says.
For now, French legislation doesn't anticipate anything for the postmortem future of personal data. "Personal data isn't a possession, but a reflection of personality, to which rights of personality are attached," says Paul Hébert, deputy head of compliance at the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty. "These rights to personality thus disappear with death."
In their terms and conditions, some websites provide the process for successors to follow. For instance, at the private document archiving service e-Coffrefort, only the attorney in charge of the legacy can access the content. For many other sites, the decision of a judge is required. "In many cases, the beneficiaries have great difficulty in retrieving the data of the deceased person and can legally not assert their rights," says Axelle Lemaire, French Minister for Digital Affairs.
The goal of her "draft bill for a digital Republic" is for "every person to be able to define instructions regarding the conservation and communication of their personal data after their death." But some websites are hostile to this idea. "It's a topic that no one anticipated to this extent and will require a lot of time to consider," one legal director warns.
In any case, if it sees the light of day, the measure should be popular among Internet users. "In every culture, there is the desire to pass on a special aspect of oneself," explains Christian Bromberger, an ethnologist from the University of Aix-Marseille.
It used to be that only great politicians, artists and intellectuals were able to leave a trace. Soon maybe, it will be possible for anyone.