Facebook Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Grieving families, privacy advocates and big tech corporations are butting heads over an issue that, in the 21st century, will one day apply to the overwhelming majority of adults and nearly all young people now online: What should be done with someone’s social media accounts when they die?

Upon close inspection the little-considered issue opens a thicket of problems. Families trying to hold onto or find out more about a loved one are often prevented from doing so by company policies that automatically terminate accounts belonging to the deceased, a situation that’s complicated even further when those accounts contain important information. The issue, which is the subject of legislation in a number of states, is also sensitive when it becomes the focus of so much raw emotion.

“This is something most people don’t think of until they are faced with it,” Karen Williams, an Oregon mother who lost her son Loren in a 2005 motorcycle accident, told the Associated Press. “They have no idea what will be lost.”

The average Web user has 25 accounts, according to a 2007 Microsoft study, although that figure has almost certainly increased as Americans have further entrenched themselves online in the seven years since. Users don’t realize it, but many of the conversations and photos they share on social networks don’t even belong to them, but to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and the like. And each company has a different policy when a user passes away.

Facebook, for instance, permits families to convert a dead user’s profile into a memorial page. Although the account remains locked, users can share their memories of the deceased by posting photos, comments and links. Otherwise the company will remove the account after receiving a special request from an immediate family member.

Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) deactivates an account when asked to by an estate executor or an immediate family member. Google launched a feature last year called the Inactive Account Manager, which lets users to tell Google what they want to be done with their digital assets when they die.

The Uniform Law Commission, an influential group of lawyers, has lobbied Congress to enact a law that gives families access to everything online unless the deceased specifically mentions otherwise in a will.

“Our email accounts are our filing cabinets these days,” Suzanne Brown Walsh, one of the attorneys who led the effort, told the AP, stipulating that “if you need access to an email account, in most states you wouldn’t get it.”

Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Indiana, Idaho and Nevada all have laws regulating access to inactive profiles. The laws vary wildly, though, with Virginia being the only state that addresses how a minor’s account is treated. Connecticut and Rhode Island, on the other hand, only have laws applying to email.

Privacy watchdogs have been reluctant to accept such plans, noting that the users in question never gave explicit permission for their most personal files to be analyzed.

“The digital world is a different world,” Ginger McCall, an associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, told the AP. “No one would keep 10 years of every communication they ever had with dozens or even hundreds of other people under their bed.”

Relatives are known to find their loved ones’ passwords and log onto their accounts that way, although that simple action is in fact illegal in many jurisdictions.

Jim Lamm, a Minnesota estate lawyer who focuses on digital issues, told the Wall Street Journal, “There hasn’t been a lot of case law on this. It’s up to a prosecuting attorney whether to charge” someone for looking at the accounts of the dead, he went on, “and that’s not a risk that I would advise them to take.”

If the Uniform Law Commission is successful in pushing their version of the law, it would streamline the laws throughout the U.S. and set a new standard for families, including Karen Williams, the mother from Oregon.

“I could understand where some people don’t want to share everything,” she told the AP. “But to us, losing (our son) unexpectedly, anything he touched became so valuable to us.” And “if we were in the era of keeping a shoebox full of letters, that would have been part of the estate and we wouldn’t have thought anything of it.”