An ethical framework for the digital afterlife industry

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DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0335-2
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Abstract
The web is increasingly inhabited by the remains of its departed users, a phenomenon that has given rise to a burgeoning digital afterlife industry. This industry requires a framework for dealing with its ethical implications. The regulatory conventions guiding archaeological exhibitions could provide the basis for such a framework.
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An ethical framework for the digital afterlife
industry
The web is increasingly inhabited by the remains of its departed users, a phenomenon that has given rise to a
burgeoning digital afterlife industry. This industry requires a framework for dealing with its ethical implications.
The regulatory conventions guiding archaeological exhibitions could provide the basis for such a framework.
Carl Öhman and Luciano Floridi
The number of ‘dead’ profiles on
Facebook has been estimated
to increase at a rate of roughly
1.7 million per year in the United States
alone1. Depending on the future rate of
growth in Facebook users, the dead may
even outnumber the living before the end
of the century. Meanwhile, technological
development has enhanced how we
‘socialize’ with the dead online. Firms
such as Eterni.me and Replica now offer
consumers online chat bots, based on one’s
digital footprint, which continue to live on
after users die, enabling the bereaved to
‘stay in touch’ with the deceased. This new
phenomenon has opened up opportunities
for commercial enterprises to monetize
the digital afterlife of Internet users. As a
consequence, the economic interests of these
firms are increasingly shaping the presence
of the online dead2.
The sociological and legally oriented
literature has mainly focused on social
practices of grief on social media. This
debate has largely focused on the role of
technological development in shaping
modern practices of online grieving, and
has, with few exceptions3, left the economic
and ethical aspects of the phenomenon
mostly unexplored. The fact that the
online dead are generally mediated by
commercial platforms therefore tends to be
neglected. This is problematic, considering
the recent growth in the industry. There
is a plethora of start-ups now investing
in death online, and tech giants are also
beginning to join the trend. Facebook,
with its two billion (living) users, has
made significant advances in supporting
users who wish to mourn and stay in
touch with the profiles of the departed.
Likewise, Google has recently launched
an ‘inactive account manager’ to deal with
the inevitable deaths of its users, thereby
following in the footsteps of numerous
digital afterlife start-ups. Although they
differ in their respective business models,
these enterprises may all be placed under
the same umbrella term, the digital afterlife
industry (DAI)2.
Mapping the DAI
The DAI includes a wide range of actors2,4,
from small start-up applications, such as
Afternote and Departing.com, to technology
giants, such as Facebook and Google. It also
includes a variety of consumer services,
from advanced artificial intelligence-based
avatars to simple password deposits. A
conceptual map of the industry (Table 1)
indicates the presence of four categories of
firms: (1) information management services,
(2) posthumous messaging services,
(3) online memorial services and
(4) ‘re-creation services’.
(1) Information management services help
users deal with problems regarding digi-
tal asset management, which may occur
in the event of their own, or someone
else’s, death. Such rms are seldom very
technologically sophisticated. ey
generally create only a form of ‘digital
will’, ensuring that assets are passed
on (or destroyed) on death. A report
released by the online security com-
pany McAfee claims that the average
Internet user puts a value of US$37,000
on their digital assets. Although many
information management start-ups have
become obsolete since Google launched
its ‘inactive account manager’ feature,
recent industry investment indicates a
thriving business.
(2) Posthumous messaging services
provide a more personalized product.
e typical rm sends out an e-mail
to the user. If this goes unanswered, it
triggers a number of messages and/or
other forms of digital content to be sent
to some specied recipients. Whereas
one or two messages are oen sent out
free of charge, almost every site urges
their users to upgrade to some kind of
premium service for US$10–50 per year.
(3) Online memorial services are more
explicitly directed towards the be-
reaved. ey provide an online space
for a deceased individual or group to
be mourned and/or remembered. Sites
oen include features such as logs
and other forms of communication
Credit: Vladumir Kolosov / Alamy Stock Photo
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comment
© 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. © 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved.
channels, where the bereaved can
mourn together and upload photos,
videos and other content, which func-
tion as a sort of digital grave marker.
is kind of service is typically delivered
by a start-up with around 50,000 users.
However, Facebook currently hosts the
majority of online memorials, despite
the feature not being part of its primary
business model. Just like Facebook,
most services advertise themselves as
free, but almost without exception
there is some form of paid ‘premium
version; although notably not in the
case of Facebook.
(4) Re-creation services use personal data
to generate new content replicating a
dead person’s social behaviour, oen
through a chat bot-like application that
generates new messages based on past
data. Re-creation services are typically
provided by fairly young start-up
companies. Unlike with the previous
categories, this kind of feature has yet
to be adopted by mainstream technol-
ogy giants. Nevertheless, user numbers
are growing rapidly, Eter9 being one of
the fastest-growing examples. Likewise,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
start-up Eterni.me also has about 33,000
beta-subscribers, and Replica (not
primarily a DAI service) claims to have
around half a million users.
To summarize these categories, Table 1
illustrates the four types as a gradual
progression of interactivity, that is, ordered
by degree of posthumous presence. While
this doesn’t represent the only possible way
to organise said categories, it is the one that
best illustrates the above summary.
Among the firms described above,
we have also found different modes of
monetization. Some use a ‘free of charge
model, selling targeted ads instead. Others
offer products for consumers to purchase.
But regardless of how they go about doing
so, they all share an interest in monetizing
death online, using digital remains as a
means of making a profit. For example,
financially successful chat-bot services
represent not just any version of the
deceased, but rather the one that appeals
most to consumers and that maximizes
profit. The remains thus become a
resource, a form of (fixed) capital in the
DAI economy2.
Such capitalization of digital remains may
have far-reaching consequences, especially
as capital requires human labour to remain
productive. In other words, a growing
volume of digital remains necessitates
an increase in posthumous interaction
online. If not deleting them, what would
make the cost of storing billions of dead
profiles financially viable? Is increasing
commercialization the only solution, or
will we rather see something similar to the
management of public cemeteries? And if
the choice will be to delete profiles, what
would the selection process look like?
Would profiles with a larger audience be
prioritized? Undoubtedly, these and similar
options raise difficult ethical concerns.
Identifying key challenges
So far, there has been little effort to build
frameworks to ensure ethical usage of digital
remains for commercial purposes, especially
with regards to more sophisticated
technologies. To set the direction for a
future ethical and regulatory debate, we
suggest that digital remains should be
seen as the remains of an informational
human body5, that is, not merely regarded
as a chattel or an estate, but as something
constitutive of one’s personhood6. This
is also in line with European Union
legislations terminology regarding ‘data
subjects’. Given this approach, the main
ethical concern of the DAI emerges as a
consequence of the commercially motivated
manipulation of one’s informational
corpse (that is, the digital remains of a
data subject). This approach suggests we
should seek inspiration from frameworks
that regulate commercial usage of organic
human remains. A good model is provided
by archaeological and medical museums,
which exhibit objects that, much like digital
remains, are difficult to allocate to a specific
owner and are displayed for the living
to consume. Furthermore, as collections
become increasingly digitized and made
available online7, the ethical concerns of
archaeology appear to be increasingly
merging with those of the DAI. It is
therefore heartening that the former
already has ethical and regulatory
frameworks in place.
A document of particular interest is the
International Council of Museums (ICOM)
Code of Professional Ethics8. It stipulates
that human remains must be handled in
accordance with their inviolable ‘human
dignity’. The strength of this concept lies in
the fact that it applies irrespective of whether
the ethical patient is aware or not. Moreover,
it applies to individuals and groups alike,
and has thus been key in the process of
repatriating remains from marginalized
and previously colonized groups such as
the First Nations9. Finally, the concept of
dignity provides a direct link to the domain
of informational privacy, where it already
plays a central role (see the General Data
Protection Regulation in European Union
legislation10).
Ethically, human dignity requires that
digital remains, seen as the informational
corpse of the deceased, may not be used
solely as a means to an end, such as profit,
but regarded instead as an entity holding
an inherent value. This is stated explicitly
in ICOM’s code. As museums often sell
and produce replicas of exhibited objects
(human or not), the code further specifies
that “all aspects of the commercial venture
must be carried out with respect for “the
intrinsic value of the original object.
Adopting a similar regulative approach
to the DAI would clarify the relationship
between deceased individuals and the firms
holding and displaying their data. Despite
sometimes being the sole legal owner of the
data, and irrespective of the desires of those
next to kin, DAI firms would be obliged
to abide by certain conventions, such as
preventing hate speech and refraining from
commercial exploitation of memorialized
profiles. As indicated by ICOM, human
remains are not meant to be consumed by
the ‘morbidly curious.
While the proposed approach would have
implications for all four types of DAI services,
it would have particularly deep consequences
for re-creation services. This is also where
the most significant ethical concerns lie. For
instance, as chat bots are frequently enhanced
and updated, the image of the person they
depict changes over time; even within only five
years of a user’s death, the chat bot for which
they signed up will likely have developed
into something far more sophisticated and
Table 1 | Progression of posthumous online presence
Digital
remains as
estate
Digital remains
as preserved
memory
Digital remains as
communication Digital remains
as artificial
agent
Information management
services
Online memorial services
Posthumous messaging
services
Re-creation services
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comment
© 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. © 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved.
commercially calibrated. Furthermore, as the
re-creation services provide the highest degree
of presence, they also involve the greatest risk
regarding privacy.
Given these concerns, a minimal
requirement would be for firms to guarantee
that: (1) consumers are informed on how
their data may come to be displayed post-
mortem; (2) users are not depicted radically
differently from the bot that they originally
signed up for; and (3) users only upload
data that belongs to them personally, that is,
not making bots out of a deceased relative
or friend. Requirements like these could be
imposed by regulators, but may just as well
be set by internal agreements within the
industry, such as the ICOM code of ethics,
or even be incorporated within the ethical
policy work of individual firms. Today
however, there are no — or very few —
explicit requirements such as these.
These concerns demand careful
investigation and dialogue between
policymakers, industry and academic
experts. They will only grow in
significance as the dead become
increasingly numerous online. In
developing a constructive ethical approach,
the first step is to decide to what extent,
and under what circumstances, our
memory of the deceased is to be driven
and shaped by the commercial interests
of industry. The second, and equally
important, step will be to develop a
regulatory framework, commonly adopted,
to ensure dignity for those who are
re-mediated and remembered online.
Carl Öhman1* and Luciano Floridi1,2
1Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford,
Oxford, UK. 2e Alan Turing Institute, London, UK.
*e-mail: carl.ohman@oii.ox.ac.uk
Published: xx xx xxxx
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0335-2
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Competing interests
The authors declare no competing interests.
NATURE HUMAN BEHAVIOUR | www.nature.com/nathumbehav
  • ... Not to mention legal voids, market solutions and social norms governing this new social issue are also incipient, if not nonexistent. Consequently, it is unclear to what extent the perpetual remains of one's digital traces, properties and associated identities will affect the shaping of the digital sphere and its transformation (Ö hman and Floridi, 2018). ...
    Article
    Purpose The digitization of the life has brought complexities associated with addressing digital life after one’s death. This paper aims to investigate the two related issues of the privacy and property of postlife digital assets. Design/methodology/approach The understanding of digital assets has not been fully unpacked largely due to the current policy complexities in accessing and obtaining digital assets at death. This paper calls critical attention to the importance of respecting user rights in digital environments that currently favor service providers’ interests. Findings It is argued that there are ethical blind spots when protecting users’ rights, given no ontological difference between a person’s digital beings and physical existence. These derive from the restrictive corporate terms and ambiguous conditions drafted by digital service providers. Originality/value Fundamentally, the transition to the big data era, in which the collection, use and dissemination of digital activities became integral part of the ontology, poses new challenges to privacy and property rights after death.
  • ... For how long will it be economically viable to store hundreds of millions of deceased profiles on the servers? 15 Several philosophers and legal scholars have recently argued for the concept of posthumous privacy to be recognised (see Scarre [2014, p.1], Stokes [2015] and Öhman & Floridi [2018]). 16 Recital 27 of the GDPR clearly states that '[t]his Regulation does not apply to the personal data of deceased persons', however does at the same time allow Member States to make additional provision for this purpose. ...
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  • ... Control and privacy of one's personal data such as emails (Harbinja, this issue) is also a reflection of respect for their autonomy (Sanches et al., 2019). € Ohman and Floridi (2018) advanced the ethical framing of digital remains as the "informational corpse of the deceased" arguing for the need for frameworks to regulate the commercial use of such remains aligned to the value of human dignity and prevention of commercial exploitation. However, the examples above are limited and more interdisciplinary research is needed in this particularly important area. ...
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  • ... Control and privacy of one's personal data such as emails (Harbinja, this issue) is also a reflection of respect of their autonomy (Sanches et al., 2019). Öhman and Floridi (2018) advanced the ethical framing of digital remains as the "informational corpse of the deceased" arguing for the need for frameworks to regulate the commercial use of such remains aligned to the value of human dignity and prevention of commercial exploitation. However the examples above are limited and more interdisciplinary research is needed in this particularly important area. ...
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  • ... There is a new industry of services aimed at enabling users to control their data posthumously (Öhman & Floridi, 2018). Two of the main online platforms, Google and Facebook, offer tools for managing access to digital remains. ...
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  • 1.7 million U.S Facebook users will pass away
    • C Evans
    Evans, C. 1.7 million U.S Facebook users will pass away in 2018. The Digital Beyond http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2018/01/1-7-million-u-s-facebook-users-will-pass-away-in-2018/ (2018).
    • P Stokes
    Stokes, P. Ethics Inf. Technol. 17, 1-12 (2015).
    • J M M S Alberti
    • E Hallam
    Alberti, J. M. M. S. & Hallam, E. Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future (The Royal College of Surgeons of England, London, 2015).
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    Bernick, A. Indones. J. Intl Comp. Law 637-688 (2014).
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    Floridi, L. Philos. Technol. 29, 307-312 (2016).
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