Facebook After You Die

With the rise of the Silver Surfer, death and digital assets will be an increasingly important issue. (Sorry, this is inevitable!)

A few new websites have started addressing the death:
Legacy Locker offers an encrypted password storage service that can be accessed by your loved ones in the event of your death, without going through the courts. (Favorite site feature: The “Report a Passing” button on the homepage)
Dead Man’s Switch sends over a series of emails to which you must respond within 60 days or it will release all your passwords (in the presumption that you are dead).

But most online services pay little heed to the interests of the dead or those surviving them, a point highlighted by Lilian Edwards of the University of Sheffield in a recent talk at Hong Kong University’s Digital Convergence conference.

As you can see from the notes below, Edwards found little information and occasionally even hostility when approaching Internet services about the issue.

User Agreements Go Beyond Death
One underlying issue is that many Web 2.0 assets have ironclad user agreements that may make it difficult for loved ones to get access to the content after death. One example she gave was the refusal of Yahoo! to hand over emails to the loved ones of a 20-year old US soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The family took Yahoo! to court where the judge ordered the company to give the family of Justin Ellsworth all his emails. To avoid breaching their privacy policy of not handing over passwords, Yahoo! delivered the emails on CD and in printed form.

Is an online service part of your estate?
Part of the problem is that courts have not clearly established what exactly an online service is in relation to a dead person’s estate.

Can you inherit preferences?
Another interesting issue is what happens to user preferences on a shared music site like Last.fm, where users share their preferences and tastes. It turns out that the site considers their user’s music preferences as a community property so that they will not delete it when someone dies. In other words, we can pass on our tastes to future generations.

Online Assets raise a range of concerns
Facebook profiles – offer access to deceased person’s network (often get “memorialised”)
Blog site posts – can hold literary/cultural value
Online photos on Flickr – can have financial value and sentimental appeal
Ebay – Seller IDs, transactions in progress and reputations
Emails – Same issues as eBay plus access to deceased person’s network
Last.fm – User’s listening preference profile (cf Amazon, etc)
MMORPGS such as  World of Warcraft – Virtual currency, assets of real value and an avatar’s identity

Death Policies of Social Networks:

Facebook: The most sophisticated – specifies proof of death information is needed to memorialize a site, restricts to FO, removes sensitive information; An account can be deleted but not modified or login passed over. 
MySpace:
deletion or preservation, no transfer of login.
Bebo: allows next of kin to make profile private & amend slightly.

Email:

Gmail: Allows access on proof of death and power of attorney (cf probate, confirmation etc).
Yahoo!: As part of privacy policy in US, account is terminated on proof of death, with all emails deleted and login not transferable. (Exception was the US Marine case from above)
Hotmail: used to expire a/c after 30 days disuse; not clear if still the case. Forbids transfer of password.

Other Sites:

eBay: hard to find information on either site or via enquiry, yet has most economic value attached to death. Accounts can have unfinished transactions and reputation of a seller can have high value. Disclosure of the password is “not recommended”.

Last.fm: Policy is to never disable accounts after death. The site sees music tastes as community effort to produce best service possible. If no password, would have to be “very convincing towards the support people”.

Flickr:  (As with Yahoo.co.uk) Almost no information. “You acknowledge that Yahoo! reserves the right to log off accounts that are inactive for an extended period of time.” Reportedly sites can be closed and occasionally transferred on proof of death.

World of Warcraft: “All rights and title in and to the Service .. Are owned by Blizzard” – “user accounts”, avatars, swords etc, (paras 4,7,11) and non-saleable (para 11) Para  13 – termination – no mention death – no refunds!

Conclusions:

  • Most platforms insist they have total control of user information, with the rights of family considered only at the provider’s discretion. Grounds for action and procedures are vague, inconsistent and ad hoc.
  • Deletion on proof of death is the most common procedure.
  • From the user perspective, Social Network memorialisation seems the most common practice, but there are few no opportunities for heirs to take on and alter/run site.
  • Creators of sites themselves have little opportunity to indicate their preferred option upon death. This could be added to privacy settings. In most cases, the transfer of passwords nearly always banned.

One simple suggestion Edwards offered: Put passwords in an envelope to be opened upon death!