The matter might seem trifling, but to grieving loved ones, your digital effects – the inconsequential bits and also the substantial stuff – can be a vital connection to the you who is no more. That will only become truer the more we migrate ourselves online each year. And yet, a decade and a half into popular Internet usage, simple questions about our posthumous digital legacies remain unanswered.
In 2005, a 22-year-old Arizona State student named Loren Williams was killed in a motorcycle accident. Desperate for traces of her son, his mother, Karen Williams, approached Facebook about gaining access to his account. She even managed to learn the password, according to an AP report, with help from one of Loren’s friends. But Facebook soon locked her out. Even after winning a lawsuit against the company, she never got full access.
Heartless as it sounds, Facebook’s decision was an attempt at honoring the wishes of its user – as well as the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which sought to block unlawful access to stored electronic communications. The company is not alone. Google and Yahoo have taken similar positions. “We are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased,” reads a note in the bowels of Twitter.
However well-meaning the 1986 law was, critics argue it doesn’t fit our current digital landscape. So where does the user’s expectation of privacy end, and a next-of-kin’s emotional expectations begin? Our physical possessions – even private ones, kept in safety deposit box – are certainly bequeathed to our estates when we die. Is it fair to assume our online photos and communications would do the same? Or do they deserve their own set of rules?
As the courts begin to weigh in on these questions, a slew of websites have, predictably, materialized to address the different digital gaps caused by death. IfIDie.net calls itself “the first and only digital afterlife Facebook application that enables users to create a final message that will be published after they die.” Mydigitalafterlife.com takes a different approach, offering users a chance to collect and pass along all manner of personal online history. “Your account will safeguard you stories so that your future generations don’t need to wonder,” the site assures us. For its part, Worldwithoutme.compromises to deliver all manner of communications – even personal video messages – on after your death; “Live Digitally Forever!” the motto urges us, with a somewhat odd exuberance.
For a more measured consideration of the great online beyond, check out Your Digital Afterlife, by Evan Carroll and John Romano. The book offers practical solutions for ensuring your digital legacy is handled the way you’d like it to be.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. See his work at www.chriscolin.com.
Responsible Parties/Heads of the Hydra:
· Aaron Burgess, Global Digital Creative
· Patrick Ricci, Online Quality and Customer Experience
· Meg Haley, Global Brand Creative
Please tell folks they can get in touch with the three of us if they have questions or requests to join the Dell Style Council, which is the official governance board responsible for the guide. (Naming something makes it official, right?)