How The Internet Plans To Cash In On You After You Die

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.

Jacques Henno

PARIS â€" 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."

Advance planning

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.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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