More than 16 million Australians are active on Facebook, but according to a team of researchers at Charles Sturt University and the University of Adelaide, less than a third knew the American-based website owned all their content.
The survey, Estate Planning in Australia, asked 1,000 adults what they knew about what would happen to their online content after they died, or became disabled — 71 per cent answered that they had no idea.
Professor Adam Steen, from Charles Sturt University, said out of the people they surveyed, less than 30 per cent had any idea about what would happen to their digital assets once they passed away.
“People just don’t know the full extent of the digital assets that they have,” he said.
“They can include the obvious things like emails, social media accounts like Facebook, currencies like bitcoin, photos and videos that you post on the web.
“Even government things, like government medical records and banking records and all those kinds of things.
“Movie services like Netflix — you name it, it can include those things.”
The survey found most Australians owned multiple digital assets, with only 18 per cent of those surveyed saying they had none.
Difficult task understanding terms and conditions
Professor Steen said the ownership of digital content was spelled out in the hundreds of pages of user agreements signed when setting up an account.
One US study suggested that would take an average internet user 76 days just to read all the terms and conditions they agreed to each year.
And on top of that, different platforms have different policies when a user passes away.
“For example if you inform LinkedIn or Yahoo that someone has deceased, they’ll automatically terminate the account,” Professor Steen said.
Ownership of content purchased by users was also an issue most people did not understand, such as when they ‘bought’ from companies like Amazon or Apple.
“With things like iTunes, most people don’t realise, they actually are renting the music or the video — they’re actually not owning them so they can’t be passed on,” Professor Steen said.
For family members to have a users account closed can often require them to produce a range of documentation to prove they have the right to make the request.
And often that does not give the family members access to the accounts, such as with Facebook.
“You can memorialise the page so basically close family friends and relatives can see the material, but people can’t actually get into it and access it,” Professor Steen said.
Memorialising a Facebook page basically freezes the page with the same permissions as it had when the deceased user last accessed it, but the page ceases being discoverable in a search.
Sydneysider Steph had a colleague and friend pass away unexpectedly last year whose page was memorialised.
She said while her friend’s Facebook page became a place to share memories, it was jarring to realise the content on the page was ultimately owned by Facebook.
“I think for friends of hers it became therapeutic, but I can also understand for the family there is also kind of a public account out there and they might not want it there,” she said.
“I don’t know if her parents have access to that, I don’t know if they even know it exists really, but we’ve kind of shifted what her page was.”