LINCOLN — Facebook pages are set up so you control who can and cannot be your "friend." You control who can access private information on your page.
So what happens when you die?
A state senator trying to clarify that is finding out it's a much bigger issue than he imagined.
State Sen. John Wightman of Lexington — who readily admits his "tech IQ is about zero" — has been visited by a BBC film crew because of the issue.
Yahoo is interested.
And Facebook recently "lobbied up," hiring Lincoln lobbyist Kim Robak at the healthy fee of $25,000 for the month of January to work on Wightman's bill and other legislation.
Wightman's Legislative Bill 783 would allow your designated personal representative (usually a close relative) to access your website, Facebook account or My Space account and either shut it down or post a message, such as, "Sorry, but John has passed away."
But it would also allow your representative to keep posting on such sites, which would come in handy in rare instances. For example, if you were a musician or author selling music or books on your page, you'd probably want that to continue after you've moved on.
The bill was introduced on behalf of the Nebraska Bar Association to clarify the rights of personal representatives in the new digital age, where private information is tucked away in cyberspace instead of a shoebox.
It is patterned after a "digital assets" law passed last year in Oklahoma, a first-of-its-kind law that reportedly flew under the radar of Facebook. The giant social networking concern didn't want that to happen again, hence the hiring of Robak. At least five other states are looking at similar laws.
At a recent public hearing on the proposal, the case of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., came up. Weiner resigned in disgrace after it was discovered that he was, among other things, chatting about sex on Facebook with women other than his wife. Guys like Weiner, presumably, wouldn't want their spouses or relatives discovering such chats when they die.
Facebook officials say that they've already got the matter handled and that their policies ensure that "privacy settings are preserved and respected."
When informed that someone has died, Facebook puts a page in a "special memorialized state" so friends and loved ones can post messages of condolence. The company will also remove a Facebook page at the request of the family of the deceased.
It won't, however, provide passwords or log-in information to anyone, even next of kin, unless that is directed in a will or decreed by law.
Tucker Bounds of Facebook, as well as Robak, emphasized that the company doesn't oppose Wightman's bill. But as Bounds put it, "We want to make sure that any legislation is worded correctly."
This is an issue that can spawn a lawsuit. Back in 2004, Yahoo was sued by the family of Justin Ellsworth, a Marine who died in Iraq, after the company refused to provide his email login and password, in accordance with its privacy policies. The family members ultimately won a court judgment allowing them to see Ellsworth's last words.
Katie Zulkoski, a lobbyist representing the Nebraska Bar Association, is leading discussions to reword the bill so it meshes with Facebook's service contracts.
Some other lobbyists find it interesting — and a potential conflict of interest — that Zulkoski and Robak work for the same lobbying firm, Mueller and Robak, and are working for different clients on the same bill.
But Robak, a former lieutenant governor and possible Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, rejected the idea that a conflict existed because Facebook didn't testify in opposition to the bill — it is just working on the language of the legislation. Other lobbying firms, she added, have had similar dual clients in the past.
Wightman's bill is headed for a compromise and probably adoption.
But the senator, who has handled a lot of wills and estates in his career, said that if you "tweet" and "post," it's probably a good idea to add instructions in your will on how to deal with your Facebook or Twitter account when you die.
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