What Happens to Our Online Lives After Death?

November 2, 2009

Death. Taxes. Button rollovers. There are few certainties. But those are three of them.

On Friday, I aimed for a fun blog post. Today’s Monday. As good a time as any for a morbid one. Despite its inevitability, death isn’t something online companies and users consider as fully as they should.

A reader recently wrote the blog The Consumerist complaining that she had been “asked twice this week to improve the Facebook existence of someone who passed away this summer, despite e-mailing them several times to alert them of this person’s untimely demise.”

The Consumerist notes that setting the deceased’s profile to memorial mode would prevent others from receiving such suggestions. But this option is available only to persons close to the deceased.

In other online spaces, the bereaved are fighting to access and preserve their loved ones’ online property, which, given how much of people’s lives play out online these days, can hold as much sentiment as material belongings.

An article in today’s New York Times detailed how Yahoo, citing terms of service privacy stipulations, prevented the family of a solider killed in Iraq from accessing his account.

The newspaper also interviewed a widow who lost the Second Life island she lived on with her husband — whom she met in the virtual world — after deciding she was unable to afford the maintenance fees.

As the line between people’s real world and online identities gets blurrier, it is the shared responsibility of users and companies to adopt procedures to avoid situations like these. Though no one likes to think about death, what happens to their online holdings after they pass is something users will have to confront. And as legally convenient as it is, it’s in poor taste for companies to hide behind their terms of service and deny the bereaved control of their loved ones’ spaces.

A technology law professor the Times quoted suggested users name a digital executor to receive their log-in information after they pass. But he cautioned that using this information without the service provider’s knowledge could be considered fraud. As the Times observes, this is a “murky legal realm.”

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