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Who owns your digital afterlife?

31 August 2015

From The San Jose Mercury News:

When a landlord discovered the body of bestselling novelist Marsha Mehran last year in a seaside Irish cottage, the 36-year-old had left behind a trove of literary work.

Some of it, such as the international hit “Pomegranate Soup,” can be found in libraries and bookstores around the world. Other writings were stuck in the Internet cloud, including a password-protected account that only Google knew how to open.

What happens to our emails, online searches, or — in Mehran’s case — digital manuscripts, when we die? It took costly legal maneuvers this summer stretching from Australia to Silicon Valley for her grieving father to find out.

“I wanted to know if Marsha left any notes, anything about her sickness, or about what was going on in the last year or two,” said Abbas Mehran. “What’s the difference between the notebook my daughter left for me, with all the secrets of life, and the digital account that Google has?”

A surge of families struggling with similar questions is driving a behind-the-scenes political battle between tech companies and estate lawyers over who gets the keys to someone’s digital afterlife.

In California, lawmakers will vote in September on a bill backed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and a lobby group that represents Google, Microsoft and Apple. Assembly Bill 691 would deny families access to emails of someone who died unless a court finds the person had consented to passing them on to heirs; other digital assets such as photos and documents would also be restricted, with an exception for recent files that affect an estate’s finances. By favoring personal privacy over a family’s wishes, the companies hope to appeal to the unspoken will of their users while also lessening the bureaucratic hassle of complying with millions of posthumous requests.

. . . .

“Many of our privacy rights expire when we pass away,” Carroll said. “Sometimes a family says, ‘I don’t want to read his or her emails. I want my memories the way they are.’ That’s completely valid. But certainly an archivist would argue that often just as important as the manuscript (are) all the notes and correspondence. It reveals more about the author’s thought process and the decisions that were made, how the work came together and what the author was thinking.”

Some companies, such as Yahoo, destroy everything and reveal nothing after a user dies. Others take a case-by-case approach. Facebook and Google now have online tools that allow users to choose their digital heirs and how much they want preserved or deleted upon death.

Link to the rest at  The San Jose Mercury News and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Legal Stuff

14 Comments to “Who owns your digital afterlife?”

  1. Is it wrong that reading this triggered Evil Meryl into wondering if she can write a script that sends haunting emails after she’s gone?

  2. Finally, after WAY too many years (youngest is 23, does NOT need my sister to be her guardian), we have updated our wills, powers of attorney, and final directives.

    (Note: we feel exactly the same, and are probably LESS likely to die with the new will in place, because of the reduced stress from having finally done it.)

    Now I have to worry about access to all my digital information ‘out there’? It is a more massive problem than the will! Decisions, decisions.

    • Something my elderly mother needs to do. I recently found out the last time her will was updated was 40 years ago. The person designated as executor and guardian for her then under-aged children has been deceased herself for ten years now.

  3. We’re stymied about writing wills… No heirs. Even the cousins are rather remote. Don’t know what to do, but want to get it done. 🙂

  4. Just leave your passwords available where they can get to them.

    • Yes, this is what I’ve done. My sons know where to look for all my passwords and log in info. As far as I’m concerned, they own everything I’ve ever written, no matter what it was or where I did it. I’ll be dead, so they inherit it all.

      Poor kids.

      • The passwords might give them control but not ownership. Ownership could require a fight to settle. Unfortunately.

        • True, but the old adage “possession is nine-tenths of the law” comes into play then. At least someone would still have the files and Yahoo wouldn’t be able to make them disappear forever (a C.Y.A. policy if ever I’ve heard one). Everyone could then fight to their heart’s content over what to do with them, but at least they would still exist.

        • Do we really own anything digital? I also have told my children where to find the passwords. Since they have the passwords, they can close the accounts or do whatever they want with the files–how will Yahoo know it’s not really me? 🙂

  5. Our stumbling point is no heirs. Have to solve that first.

  6. Another front in the age old estate battle. I’ve been involved in dozens of criminal cases, divorces and estate disputes.

    Estates can be as nasty as divorce and criminal. A bad estate situation brings out the claws and drums up age old slights of an entire extended family.

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