Mummy in a museum

Handle digital remains with same respect as human remains, academics suggest

Image credit: Dreamstime

A team of researchers based at the University of Oxford have recommended that museum-style regulations controlling the handling of organic human remains could prevent digital remains from being exploited.

Once we pass away, we leave behind our bodies and belongings as our ancestors have for millennia, but also the unique footprints we scatter across the internet. Such material – photos, comments and ‘Candy Crush’ high scores - is known as our ‘digital remains’. While the concept has existed throughout the short history of the web, as internet users have aged it has increasingly become a significant social issue.

Over the past few years, Facebook and smaller companies have begun efforts to monetise users’ digital remains through interactions with the dead online. These interactions could include comments left on a deceased person’s Facebook profile, a live-streamed funeral or even ghostlike chat bots capable of mimicking conversation with the deceased.

This recent growth of the ‘digital afterlife industry’ has led to questions about what could be considered appropriate and inappropriate handling of digital remains.

“Some research has […] suggested that digital afterlife services may lead to prolonged grief, especially among parents of deceased children,” said Carl Öhman, a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute and an author of a Nature study exploring the issue. “Online technologies have a potential to obfuscate the limits between life and death, especially with technologies that allow you to maintain your social media presence post mortem.”

“Thus, the bereaved often addresses the digital remains of their loved ones almost as if they were still alive. Since these remains are generally owned or hosted by a commercial enterprise, it is easy to see how the situation could be exploited. It is, in a way, the ultimate product.”

So far, there has been little discussion of how to ensure that deceased internet users do not have their digital remains exploited. The new study suggests that the frameworks used to ensure respectful and non-exploitative use of human remains in museums could be a good model for regulations for the ethical use of digital remains.

In particular, the University of Oxford team drew attention to the code of professional ethics drawn up by the International Council of Museums, which require that human remains must not be stripped of their inviolable value of ‘human dignity’. Human remains must not, therefore, be used solely for commercial gains by museums.

“In colonial times, Western archaeologists sometimes behaved very disrespectfully to the ancestors of the cultures they excavated. But later, they were also among the first to recognise the inherent moral value and right to dignity held by the objects they handle,” Öhman told E&T.

“One of the most famous cases is the reburial of remains of Native Americans in the US and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Such examples […] are important because they set the standards for what is considered professional conduct and has helped foster a respectful attitude.”

In their Nature paper, the researchers mention four digital afterlife industries which risk exploiting grief and privacy for commercial gain: information management services, posthumous messaging services, online memorial services and re-creation services (which generate new messages based on a deceased person’s data).

Potential regulations governing digital remains should, the researchers say, inform people how their data may be displayed after death, that they are not grossly misrepresented and that only the deceased person – not their family or friends – can consent to hand their data to the service. Under these regulations, a company would not be able to exploit a deceased person’s name and image, or use their digital remains without their informed consent.

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