Florida bill would decide what happens to online accounts after death

The state Senate unanimously approved a bill on Tuesday that grappled with the difficult question of what happens to a person's social media accounts after they die. It aims to address privacy concerns raised by Internet companies, which offer online tools for designating 'legacy accounts.'

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP/File
In this photo taken Thursday, July 16, 2009, a Facebook user logs into their account in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Florida lawmakers approved a bill on Tuesday that grapples with the difficult question of what happens to a user's social media accounts after their death.

In an age of increasing information-sharing online, Florida lawmakers are asking — what happens to a person’s social media accounts when they die?

It’s a complicated debate. Social media pages from someone who has passed away can serve as a memorial of their life, preserving particular events through photos or updates, even displaying the person’s voice and sense of humor in a offhand tweet or post.

But some users have also grown concerned that the pages can survive as permanent records of bullying and abuse directed at the deceased person.

The lawmakers are joining a growing number of states in adopting bills that allow a person to designate a custodian to access and manage their social media, email, and online financial accounts when they die or become incapacitated.

They say it will help appointed guardians or executors better manage and preserve valuable online information — including financial records — that are increasingly stored online.

"It may be anything from all your kids' baby pictures that are in the cloud and no one can get to, all the way to life insurance policies that no one may even know about when you die," State Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R) of Port Orange, the bill’s sponsor, told the Associated Press. “In the old days you'd have a box full of papers somebody would go through – now those papers are all online."

Automated features such as Facebook’s “On This Day” have also occasionally prompted unpleasant memories for users, such as the death or family member or friend, prompting the social media site to revamp the feature last year in response to users’ concerns.

The Florida bill passed the state Senate unanimously on Tuesday, with a related House bill also headed for a debate on the House floor.

A similar bill was struck down last year in part because of objections from Internet service providers, who worried the bill could force them to violate guarantees of privacy promised to subscribers in their terms of service, the AP reports.

The bill now requires that online account holders explicitly agree in a will or an online tool provided by an Internet company to allow a custodian to take over their accounts if they die or are incapacitated.

Facebook, for example, includes a feature that allows a person to designate a “legacy contact,” while Google uses a tool called “inactive account manager.”

That’s intended to resolve the potential conflict between Internet companies and the guardians hoping to access a person’s account after a death, the Florida Senate said in an analysis of the bill in January.

The Florida bill is based on model language adopted by the Uniform Law Commission, which began looking into the issue after some states — such as New Hampshire — proposed bills on the issue that alarmed privacy advocates.

“I would be suspicious of any laws that weren't very specific,” Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the AP in 2013, referring to New Hampshire’s bill. The proposal was later tabled for further consideration.

Ms. Jeschke noted that guardians who hoped to gain access to a user’s accounts could potentially violate the privacy of other users’ the person had communicated with.

The issue became a concern for Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems, who has said that questions about the privacy of chats with a friend who was hospitalized for mental health issues was part of his reason for challenging Facebook’s data collection practices in Europe.

The Florida bill attempts to resolve that issue from the perspective of Internet companies by granting them immunity from liability “for acts or omissions done in good faith compliance” with the bill, the legislature’s analysis says.

Senator Hukill told the AP that if a user doesn’t designate control over their accounts through an online tool, will, or power of attorney, the accounts would then be controlled under the terms of service from each Internet site.

“Still, as a parent, I would certainly hope the family’s rights to stop bullies would trump those of a service provider and if they don’t currently they certainly should,” the Monitor’s Lisa Suhay wrote of proposals to determine what happens to a user’s online activity after their death in 2013.

“However, as a wife I’m a little guarded about what I may have let slip after a spat when chatting on Facebook with my best friend. If I pass on, do I really want that to be the last thing my husband sees if he goes looking through my accounts for happy memories? It’s tricky out there in the virtual world,” she added.

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