Facebook Controls Your Privacy Settings Even After You Die

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“A friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.” – Gustave Flaubert

Death is serious, and in contemporary times, social media companies must choose how to incorporate the major life event into their platforms. A sense exists that death, so heavy a subject, must be treated differently; normal commercial interests should subside and companies should develop their policies appropriate for its gravity. The choice of how to deal with death is not self-evident. Social media sites have many options: they can abolish deceased person’s site; leave the site in the state it existed just before the deceased person died; or create some alternative site format for those who have passed away. The choice requires a near-philosophical inquiry into how the platform can best deal with the gravity of death.

Facebook recently decided to change their policy regarding deceased users, and some feel it was done in a duplicitous and covert fashion.

The policy change weakened the privacy settings applied to those who pass away. For deceased Facebook users who had open privacy settings prior to their death, Facebook now allows their pages to remain accessible to the public at large. This is a departure from their previous policy, which restricted access to friends only following a user’s death.

This decision has important privacy considerations. For example, the average Facebook user changes his or her privacy settings throughout the his or her time on the site. Why should the privacy settings utilized right before a user’s death be immortalized for all time? Couldn’t Facebook have allowed users to make the decision of their privacy settings in the case of death? What gives Facebook the right to make that decision?

Instead of addressing this policy change head on, Facebook decided to write about it in a post entitled, “Remembering our Loved Ones.” The title appears too sentimental to merely apply to the shift in privacy rights. Instead, the post also deals with a new feature that Facebook now makes available to family members of a deceased Facebook user: the “Look Back” life montage video.

But was Facebook really being sincere? Two separate issues are being conflated. In Facebook’s post, the company seemingly couched a significant privacy policy change under an appealing and overwhelmingly correct decision to create a “Look Back” video. While these both relate with death, I wonder if they necessarily needed to be mentioned in the same post? Did Facebook exploit the tear-jerker YouTube video to obfuscate any potential backlash movement against the softening of user privacy?

An analysis of the Facebook post illuminates a potential calculating craftiness regarding how they reveal their information about the diminishing privacy rights.

1. The post begins by writing about the company’s commitment to improving user experience and how users contact Facebook to memorialize the accounts of deceased loved ones.

As members of Facebook’s Community Operations team, we talk to people who use Facebook every day and we’re committed to making their experience better. Some of the people who reach out to us are grieving the death of a friend or family member, and they usually ask for their loved one’s timeline to be memorialized.

2. The post then delves into the fact that the company seriously contemplates the issue of how to deal with the death of a Facebook user. They acknowledge that such questions have “no easy answer” and they wonder if they are “honoring the wishes” of the deceased.

3. Then, they finally introduce their discussion about the change in privacy policy.

We’ve decided to make an important change to how we preserve legacies on Facebook. Up to now, when a person’s account was memorialized, we restricted its visibility to friends-only… Starting today, we will maintain the visibility of a person’s content as-is. This will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person’s expectations of privacy. We are respecting the choices a person made in life while giving their extended community of family and friends ongoing visibility to the same content they could always see.

Notably, the “important change” referenced was not described as an important change in privacy rights, but as an important change in how the company “preserves legacies on Facebook.” The company uses softer word choice to distract from what is actually happening.

Death deserves frank speech, but Facebook seems to evade the discussion. Facebook states that the policy change will respect the deceased person’s “expectations of privacy,” but does not substantiate why. Rather, the company merely announces that they are respecting the choices a person made in life. This is spurious reasoning. When a Facebook user makes a privacy change while alive, the user does not contemplate their death and the fact that such a setting might still apply at that time. They do not connect why a person’s decisions while alive reflect what he or she would want when deceased.

Instead of probing deeper into the issue, the rest of the post introduces the agreeable, supportable “Look Back” video policy. The new feature has little connection with the change in privacy settings and takes the reader away from the issue. The universally appealing feature is sandwiched between privacy changes with suspect reasoning and artful dodging of the issue.

I do not necessarily disagree with the change in policy, but I find it disconcerting that Facebook employs skilled writing techniques to avoid a frank discussion on the issue. Humans generally drop all guises in the midst of death. Social media sites should do the same. Facebook argues that their new policy is consistent with a user’s “expectation of privacy,” but they present the change in a manner inconsistent with a user’s “expectation” of honesty.

Imran Ahmed is a writer living in New York City whose blog explores the legal implications of social media and the internet. Contact him via email here.

Featured image courtesy of [Tim Wayne via Flickr]

Imran Ahmed
Imran Ahmed is a writer living in New York. Contact Imran at



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