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.
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“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.