What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

Facebook has made moves to clarify the complex processes around deceased users, emphasising its commitment to protect the privacy of messages.

In a blog for the social network, Facebook’s director of global policy management, Monika Bickert, writes about the many issues the company faces when a user dies. Opening with her personal experience of digital media’s role in the wake of her husband’s loss, she notes that resurfaced Facebook posts can be “overwhelming”.

From Facebook’s perspective, Bickert points to a handful of general policies. She notes that Facebook will stop sending birthday reminders once it knows someone has died, and accounts will automatically be turned into “memorials”, preserved as they are and inaccessible to new logins.

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A next of kin will also have the option to delete the deceased user’s account, and a “legacy contact” can also be elected – prior to a person’s death – that has permission to “manage certain features” of the account, including changing profile picture and accepting friend requests.

One thing that will remain inaccessible, however, is private messages on the person’s account. Bickert notes that this is a difficult call to make, even where laws and intent of the deceased are clear.

“If a father loses a teenaged son to suicide, the father might want to read the private messages of his son to understand what was happening in his son’s life. Had he been struggling in his university classes? Was he having problems with his boyfriend? As natural as it might seem to provide those messages to the father, we also have to consider that the people who exchanged messages with the son likely expected those messages would remain private.”

“Although cases like this are heartbreaking, we generally can’t turn over private messages on Facebook without affecting other people’s privacy.”

The use of “generally” here is an important one, as there may be instances where Facebook is be compelled to turn over private messages – such as in aiding a police investigation. As a rule of thumb, however, it seems like Facebook will keep private messages under lock-and-key to family members.

Bickert adds that Facebook still encounters difficult situations “where we end up disappointing people”, and that ultimately the company’s actions will be “of limited comfort”. You can read the blog in its entirety here.  

The subject of death on the internet is one that is continually developing, particularly as the first generation to use social media is aging. You can read a feature here that goes into this in more depth, originally written in the wake of Facebook’s introduction of “legacy contacts”.

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