One Foot in the Digital Grave: Who Controls Your Online Remains When You Die?
Do you keep a diary? Do you have a closet dedicated to the family photo albums and scrapbooks? Do you write letters and save those you receive in old shoeboxes?
If you answered no to these questions, chances are Facebook, Twitter, and/or Tumblr now fill the role of a diary. You store your photos online, too. And your inbox has become the repository for your correspondence.
But have you ever lost someone, maybe a grandparent or close friend, and gone through that person’s memorabilia? If so, then perhaps that person’s diary revealed a history you never knew. The photos captured the good times. The letters reminded you of your closeness.
Say you go to bed tonight and dream of leprechauns and stop breathing. In this day and age, what memorabilia will you leave behind? Once you’re dead—and face it, we will all push up daisies—what happens to your Wall and Photostream, your blog and inbox? Does it pass to your family and friends, or does it disappear? And what if you don’t want anyone to gain access?
Gmail, Google+, YouTube
Last week Google unveiled a new feature that allows you to answer those questions for yourself. Though the “inactive account manager” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Last Will and Testament,” it functions in much the same way. Google explains:
Not many of us like thinking about death — especially our own. But making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So today, we’re launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account.
It works like this: You tell Google when to worry. Have you not logged in for 3 months, 6 months, a year? And you tell Google what to do when you’ve officially gone AWOL. You decide whether Google deletes your accounts or sends their contents to whomever you choose.
A projected 2.89 million Facebook users died last year. 580,000 of those died in the United States. That means, in the US alone, Facebook users die at a rate of about one a minute.
So it’s no surprise that Facebook was one of the first social networks to figure out what to do with dead users’ accounts.
No one can inherit your Facebook account, but, when you die, it doesn’t get deleted either. A friend, a relative, even a co-worker can notify Facebook of your death, send a link to the obituary, and request the memorialization of your account. Once memorialized, only confirmed friends can see your profile or locate it in a search. They can browse the photos and timeline, and leave posts of remembrance, but they can’t confirm new friends or delete selected content. They have no control over who sees what. Facebook will not provide login information.
But say the last photo was of you artificially inseminating a cow? Or your last post was a rant against your sister? Well, Facebook’s got a solution to that, though you might not like it: An immediate family member (or executor) can request that Facebook delete your entire account: photos, posts, contacts, the works.
So what will it be? A display of the good, the bad, and the ugly? Or an unmarked digital grave? With Facebook, it’s all or nothing.
Twitter and Tumblr
The writings of the deceased have sentimental value to their survivors. And the papers of famous politicians, artists, celebrities, and intellectuals often have cash value. But in the age of Twitter and Tumblr, who really owns your digital diary, file cabinet, and shoebox?
In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on the behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.
It’s unclear whether Twitter will provide a permanent backup of the deceased user’s tweets.
On Tumblr, inactive accounts aren’t deleted or memorialized. Family can’t request the deletion or backup of accounts. The social network seems content consigning its dead to limbo.
Though if you’ve purchased a custom domain linked to Tumblr, the bill will inevitably come due.
Flickr and Yahoo
Yahoo, owner of the photo-sharing network, doesn’t sugarcoat it:
No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.
In practice, free accounts are left alone in perpetuity—no one at Flickr checks the pulse. But for Pro accounts, when the bill goes unpaid, only the most recent 200 photos remain accessible. For the family, that might mean losing the old photo albums. The heirs of professional photographers might lose sales.
As for Yahoo email, it deactivates accounts as soon as six months after you logged in for the last time.
The matchmakers at OkCupid don’t delete inactive accounts, and they don’t seem to offer a way for dead users’ families and friends to modify or remove accounts.
[Insert saying about love lasting forever.]
Smell the Roses
A week ago, before launching its “inactive account manager,” Google deleted an account after 9 months of inactivity. But with a quick change in policy, the tech giant empowered users to decide who gets what when they die.
Other social networks will eventually follow suit, predicts the people who predict these things—but you don’t have to wait to take control of your “digital legacy.”
The easiest way is to appoint a so-called digital executor. Choose someone, or even several people, whom you trust and give them a list of all your accounts and passwords. You can even set up Facebook’s application ifidie to send your executor the sensitive information once you’ve gone post-mortal. And though social networks all have policies barring “impersonation,” the advice of many is to simply ignore this.
A number of companies have also sprung up that will manage your accounts in the exceedingly likely event of your death. SecureSafe, which likes to compare itself to a “Swiss Bank Vault,” promises to “transfer your files and passwords to your relatives should something happen to you… You do not need a lawyer.” A company called Legacy Locker, though less matter-of-fact, offers a similar service.
Either way, it’s important that you leave “Last Will and Testament”-type instructions on who gets access to what, and your preferences regarding what gets saves and what gets deleted. State laws on digital assets either don’t exist or vary, and, overall, the legal landscape remains clouded by competing interests, but in the end putting your wishes down on paper is your best bet.
Sound like a pain? All that planning and then all the updating that’s sure to follow? Here’s a small consolation, courtesy of Woody Allen:
On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down.