Researcher wants to see shared power over data of deceased

Portrait of Carl Öhman in front of a bookshelf.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter should not have exclusive rights to our digital remains, says political scientist Carl Öhman. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

In 30 to 40 years, there will be more dead people than alive on Facebook. But who should have the right to this digital graveyard full of valuable data? This is one of the questions explored by researcher Carl Öhman in his new book The Afterlife of Data.

Compulsively readable and peppered with engaging personal anecdotes – such was the praise from the magazine Science for Carl Öhman's new book, The Afterlife of Data. The book, based on his thesis, is constructed around the premise that everything we do on the internet is recorded – and will remain there when we die.

“In 2019, my colleague David Watson and I calculated that in three to four decades, there will be more dead people on Facebook than living. That’s a major challenge for a company that relies on us clicking on adverts. The dead don’t click on any adverts,” says Öhman, researcher at the Department of Government.

Perfect archive of human life

When there is no commercial gain from retaining the data of the deceased, there is a risk that it will be destroyed. This is something Carl Öhman considers problematic. There is much of value there that should be preserved, not least for future generations of historians.

“What our generation will leave behind on social media is an almost complete archive of human life in the 21st century. But all this data is now controlled by commercial interests. In a few years, two or three companies will have a monopoly on our digital history.”

Elon Musk owns entire #metoo movement

Öhman gives the example of the #metoo movement, which largely took place on Twitter. Since the company was bought by Elon Musk, it has become increasingly difficult for researchers to access the posts on the platform now known as X.

“Elon Musk owns the entire #metoo movement by controlling which researchers have access to these important digital archives. In a few decades, he will control a large part of society’s digital past.”

Calls for UNESCO World Heritage-style solution

There is no obvious solution to the problem. However, Öhman stresses the importance of commercial companies not having the power to decide what happens to our data. He draws parallels with a museum cull, where several different experts are consulted to decide what should remain. This is the process he thinks should be used on the platforms that have stored a lot of valuable information about us.

“I’m thinking something along the lines of UNESCO World Heritage system. The pyramids are located on the territory of Egypt, but there are certain rules that must be respected. For example, no one is permitted to rebuild them or destroy them,” he notes, before continuing:

“This is how it would work for large companies that store data. Institutions must be created to share power over archives – no one person should have sole control over our past.”

Sandra Gunnarsson

Image on the cover of the book, a skull of ones and zeros on a red background.

The Afterlife of Data: What Happens to Your Information When You Die and Why You Should Care is published by University of Chicago Press

Subscribe to the Uppsala University newsletter