Photo/IllutrationThe Twitter account of the YouTuber Eiji who died in 2019, has about 420,000 followers. (Natsuki Edogawa

Where do the tweets go after the person posting has died?

IT companies are increasingly forced to grapple with this issue due to privacy concerns and compelling arguments that the reams of data should remain active or online as a sort of social record, rather than being wiped clean.

A lack of organizational consensus on how to handle tweets, blogs and other digital content created by individuals who are now deceased was amply demonstrated last year when Twitter announced it would delete accounts that had not been updated for at least six months.

The decision triggered a strong backlash among those who insisted that a dead person's tweets constituted important or cherished memories of the individual. Twitter later retracted its deletion policy.

A 21-year-old university student living in Hokkaido was delighted by the company's change of heart as deleting the accounts of the dead would have led to the disappearance of a YouTuber she had avidly followed.

The person in question was a 22-year-old who used the handle name of Eiji and often posted about daily occurrences in his life until he was killed in an accident in Saipan in January 2019.

After the Twitter announcement, the university student tweeted, “I would hate to see the daily life of Eiji simply disappear.”

The student began living by herself after entering university and often viewed Eiji’s Twitter account when she felt lonely.

“I felt that while the YouTube videos were his creations, Twitter was more a window into his daily life,” the student explained. “Deleting his Twitter account would have been like having Eiji die a second time. I am really happy Twitter changed its policy.”

PRIVACY CONCERNS

The big social networking companies have different policies about the accounts of those who have died.

For example, Line, the free messaging app, does not allow accounts of a deceased person to be operated by other individuals. The account can remain but not if the mobile phone number used by the dead person is assigned to a new individual.

Facebook, which in principle requires users to disclose their real names, allows an account to be transferred to a memorial site once the death of the user has been confirmed. It began offering this service 11 years ago.

The account is maintained in the same manner as when the user was alive. But if the user left instructions with family members to serve as administrators in the event of their death, Facebook will ensure the account is only accessible to friends or delete it altogether.

Facebook is also grappling with how to protect the personal information of friends of deceased people in such cases.

A Facebook representative said the company still did not have a clear policy about what to do about accounts when the user has not left clear instructions about what to do upon their death. The company is caught between choosing to go along with the wishes of bereaved family members and protecting the privacy of third parties.

Akiko Orita, an associate professor of communications at Kanto Gakuin University’s communications department who is well-versed in digital privacy issues, referred to the difficulty of determining whose wishes should be respected by using the example of a mother in Germany who took Facebook to court in 2018 to demand it open her deceased daughter’s account. The court ruled that the mother had the right to view her daughter’s account. But that left open the possibility the woman might come across confidential information related to her daughter’s friends on the account.

“It is difficult to set a clear line over whose wishes should be most respected,” Orita said.

OTHER WAYS TO REMEMBER THE DEAD

Social networking sites are also looking at other ways to memorialize the dead.

After TV celebrity Ai Iijima died in 2008, about 70,000 comments were posted to her blog in the seven years before her parents finally decided to shut it down.

The memorial account service provided by Facebook has led to some friends remembering the dead by sharing photos that had not yet been posted.

Atsushi Iseda, a lawyer who helps clients deal with issues associated with impending death, noted it is now “very easy to leave behind one’s personal history.”

“Remembering the dead through social networking sites allows users to come in contact with different aspects of the deceased through the written information and photos that becomes available on such sites,” he added.

The National Diet Library decided to preserve the blog of TV personality Mao Kobayashi, who died of cancer three years ago. She studiously updated the blog to convey how she was battling her illness right up until she died. The library determined that her blog constituted a record that provided unvarnished information about society. The library has made the data available since 2019.

Naturally, some people argue that blogs and data on social networking sites should be preserved as historical documents, much like the diary of Anne Frank and the “Sarashina Nikki,” a diary written by a woman who lived in the Heian Period (794-1185).

But lawyer Iseda said many issues still had to be dealt with before deciding what data should be preserved as a historical document, such as whether that information should continue to be preserved a century from now.