Friday, May 8, 2009

Death, another unsolved problem. Wait... Facebook says it's a "Known Problem"

Last September, the library world lost one of its really nice people and great resources. Johan van Halm was one of those people I would see at practically every conference I went to. I remember meeting him a bit more than 10 years ago when I had just started in the library and information business. He went out of his way to introduce me to many of his friends, and I soon realized that he knew just about everyone in the library automation world. We would make it a point to get together for a drink at least once every ALA. I really miss him.

But I'm not writing about Johan today- but I had to get that out of the way. I wanted to write about LinkedIn. You see, Johan is a "connection" of mine on LinkedIn. Every time I look at the list of my connections on LinkedIn, there I see Johan, living on forever in social network space. I could remove him as a connection, of course, but somehow that just doesn't seem right. Also, LinkedIn encourages you to treat your connections and the network they expoe to you as valuable assets and protects them accordingly. In contrast, your Facebook and Twitter "friends" are by default exposed to just about everyone. So on LinkedIn, it would not be to one's advantage to unconnect with someone just because they've left the corporeal parts of this life.

I hope you're sitting down, dear reader, because I have some serious things to discuss with you. Neither you nor I are going to be forever avoid "becoming deceased". However, to make this bleak situation a bit easier to swallow, let's assume, just for fun, that both you and are are going to live forever. In that case, I can pretty much guarantee you that everyone who is following you now on Twitter, all your Facebook Friends, all your LinkedIn Connections, all the friends of your friends, and even all the email accounts that you send jokes to, they will all either pass away into inactivity or become zombies controlled by someone else who is probably not your friend or connection.

Now it might just be that all the social networks we have become so enthralled with have just assumed that they themeselves will have gone belly-up or will have gone through their liquidity event before the death problem becomes severe. Or more likely, its just that they experence such a large volume of accounts fading away into inactivity that having users die is only a small perturbation on their services. But it is certainly the case that as these services become more important to our lives, the fact that we are not immortal increasingly must be addressed.

LinkedIn has done it this way:

What if I see a Profile of someone who is deceased?

Unfortunately, there may be a time when you come across a Profile of a deceased colleague, classmate or connection. If this occurs you are welcome to notify Customer Service that the Profile still exists and may need to be removed. We ask that you provide any important information about the deceased member that may aid our Privacy Department in their investigations and act on the account accordingly. Items to provide in your email would be one or two of the following:
  1. An Obituary Link.
  2. A Death Notice.
  3. Consular Report of Death.
  4. Death Certificate.
The profile "may need to be removed"?????

Facebook is also ready with a policy:
Profile: Bugs and Known Problems

I’d like to report a deceased user or an account that needs to be memorialized.

Please report this information here so that we can memorialize this person’s account. Memorializing the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only. Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honor requests from close family members to close the account completely.
"Bugs and Known Problems"???? There are some other odd results when you search Facebook help for "death", and following one of these results, you get: a link to Facebook's "Deceased" page.

GMail has an elaborate paper based procedure to access a deceased person's mail:
Accessing a deceased person's mail

If an individual has passed away and you need access to the content of his or her mail, please fax or mail us the following information:

  1. Your full name and contact information, including a verifiable email address.
  2. The Gmail address of the individual who passed away.
  3. a.The full header from an email message that you have received at your verifiable email address, from the Gmail address in question. (To obtain the header from a message in Gmail, open the message, click 'More options,' then click 'Show original.' Copy everything from 'Delivered-To:' through the 'References:' line. To obtain headers from other webmail or email providers, please refer to b.The entire contents of the message.
  4. Proof of death.
  5. One of the following: a) if the decedent was 18 or older, please provide a proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased or his or her estate or b) if the decedent was under the age of 18 and you are the parent of the individual, please provide a copy of the decedent’s birth certificate.
Postal Mail:

Google Inc.
Attention: Gmail User Support
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043
Fax: 650-644-0358 After we've received the above information, we'll need 30 days to process and validate the documents that you've provided. If you need access to the address sooner, in accordance with state and federal law, it is Google's policy to only provide information pursuant to a valid third party court order or other appropriate legal process. Please note that our ability to ability to comply with these requests varies according to applicable law.
I'll bet that even if you have made a last will and testament, you've not included any instructions there about what your executor is to do with your email accounts, your blog passwords, your websites, your social networks. Probably your family might want access to your flickr and youtube account. Also, if you think about it, you don't really want your executor poking around in your e-mails, especially that address you use only for illicit activity.

Part of my interest in the death problem stems from my interest in the Google Book Search settlement. You see, book authors and publishers have been ignoring the death problem for much longer than the Facebooks and Gmails of the world have been. The result is that many works are "orphaned", which means that the rights holders cannot be found or died without leaving instructions or documention about what to do with their intellectual property. It's worse outside the US, because the duration of copyright protection frequently depends on the death date of the author, which can be rather difficult to ascertain. Now that we have the technology to make out-of-print books in libraries generally available through the internet, the corpus of orphan works is once again important, but copyright law presents barriers to many uses, particularly those with economic value less that the cost of finding rights holders and obtaining permissions.

Do you think that perhaps Google is saving its deceased-person access requests for the day 50 years from now when they will become relevant to copyright status? I'll bet the answer is NO.


  1. DeathSwitch seems to be a service that is trying to solve this problem.