What happens to your digital life after you die? It’s a question not many consider given how embedded the internet is in their lives. The typical web user has 25 online accounts, ranging from email to social media profiles and bank accounts, according to a 2007 study from Microsoft. But families, companies and legislators are just starting to sort out who owns and has access to these accounts after someone has died.
The issue came up recently in Virginia, when a couple, seeking answers after their son’s suicide, realized they couldn’t access his Facebook account. Now Virginia is one of a growing number of states that have passed laws governing the digital accounts of the deceased. Meanwhile, technology companies are forming their own policies regarding deceased users. While still in the early stages, the laws and policies taking shape so far indicate that designating one’s “digital assets” may soon become a critical part of estate planning.
The implications are widespread, considering that today nearly all American adults are online and 72% of them, along with 81% of teenagers, use social media sites. In the digital world, posting photos, drafting emails or making purchases are activities that don’t solely belong to users. They belong, in part, to companies like Facebook and Google that store information on their servers. In order to access these convenient online tools, users enter into agreements when they click on — but often don’t read — terms-of-service agreements.
Policies surrounding death vary among some of the internet’s most prominent companies:
- Twitter will deactivate an account upon the request of an estate executor or a verified immediate family member once a copy of a death certificate and other pertinent information is provided.
- Facebook has two options. First, the site enables profiles to be turned into memorials. The account is locked, but other users can still interact with the deceased’s profile by posting comments, photos and links. The other option is to remove the account, upon special request by an immediate family member or executor.
- Google has recently established a new feature called “inactive account manager,” which prompts users to decide the fate of their accounts should they die. If the account user does not make a selection, Google’s policies are pretty strict. It warns survivors that obtaining access to a deceased person’s email account will be possible only “in rare cases.” (read full text)