In an Oct. 26 blog post, Max Kelly, Facebook’s head of security, announced the company’s policy of “memorializing” profiles of users who have died, taking them out of the public search results, sealing them from any future log-in attempts and leaving the wall open for family and friends to pay their respects.
Though most media reports claimed this was a new Facebook feature, a spokeswoman for the company told TIME that it’s an option the site has had since its early days.
The company decided to publicize the policy because of a backlash caused by a new version of the site’s homepage that was rolled out on Oct. 23, which includes automatically generated “suggestions” of people to “reconnect” with.
Within days of the launch, Twitter users and bloggers from across the Web complained that some of these suggestions were for friends who had died. “Would that I could,” complained a user on Twitter.
“We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized,” Kelly said in the post.
To discourage pranksters, Facebook does require proof before sending a profile down the digital river Styx. Family or friends must fill out a form, providing a link to an obituary or other information confirming a user’s death, before the profile is officially memorialized.
Once that is completed, the user will cease showing up in Facebook’s suggestions, and information like status updates won’t show up in Facebook’s news feed, the stream of real-time user updates that is the site’s centerpiece.
If relatives prefer not to have the profile stand as an online memorial, Facebook says it will remove the account altogether.
Spokeswoman Anne-Marie Hayden says the privacy commissioner was “quite pleased” with Facebook’s response to the office’s concerns and says the commissioner will review the detailed version of the site’s new policy, expected in late October.
Facebook’s attempt to clearly state its policy is prudent, as other social-networking sites have struggled with the question of users’ deaths.
MySpace in particular has had a difficult time with digital rubbernecking — during the site’s heyday, a handful of well-trafficked blogs specialized in matching MySpace profiles directly to obituaries and posting the pairings online for all to see.
By sealing profiles to family and friends and removing profiles from search results, Facebook assuages users’ fears that they’ll be fodder for online voyeurs in the event of their untimely demise — hopefully putting the issue to rest.