Death and the Internet

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A recent extension to the cultural relationship with death is the increasing number of people who die having created a large amount of digital content, such as social media profiles, that will remain after death. This may result in concern and confusion, because of automated features of dormant accounts (e.g. birthday reminders), uncertainty of the deceased's preferences that profiles be deleted or left as a memorial, and whether information that may violate the deceased's privacy (such as email or browser history) should be made accessible to family.

Issues with how this information is sensitively dealt with are further complicated as it may belong to the service provider (not the deceased) and many do not have clear policies on what happens to the accounts of deceased users. While some sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have policies related to death, others remain dormant until deleted due to inactivity or transferred to family or friends. The FADA (Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) was set in place to make it possible to transfer digital possessions legally.[1]

More broadly, the heavy increase in social media use is affecting cultural practices surrounding death. "Virtual funerals" and other forms of previously physical memorabilia are being introduced into the digital world, complete with public details of a person's life and death.[2][3][4]


Gmail[5] and Hotmail[6] allow the email accounts of the deceased to be accessed provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide access, citing the No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause in the Yahoo! terms of service.[7] In 2005, Yahoo! was ordered by the Probate Court of Oakland County, Michigan, to release emails of deceased US Marine Justin Ellsworth to his father, John Ellsworth.[8]

By website[edit]



In its early days, Facebook used to delete profiles of dead people, but does not anymore.[9] In October 2009, the company introduced "memorial pages" in response to multiple user requests related to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.[10][9] After receiving a proof of death via a special form, the profile would be converted into a tribute page with minimal personal details, where friends and family members could share their grief.[9]

In February 2015, Facebook allowed users to appoint a friend or family member as a "legacy contact" with the rights to manage their page after death.[11] It also gave Facebook users an option to have their account permanently deleted when they die.[12]

As of January 2019, all 3 options were active.[13]


In 2013, BuzzFeed criticized Facebook for the lack of control over memorialization that resulted in a "Facebook death" prank aimed at locking users out of their own accounts.[14][15]

In 2017, Reuters reported that a German court rejected a mother's demand to access her deceased daughter's memorialized account stating that the right to private telecommunications outweighed the right to inheritance.[16] In July 2018, Dubai's DIFC Courts ruling clarified that Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts should be bequeathed in legally binding will.[17]

Social media networks have also been criticized for not responding to relatives' requests to alter information on memorialized accounts.[18] Another criticism is that Facebook users often are unaware that their content is ultimately owned not by them, but by Facebook.[19]



Dropbox determines inactive accounts by looking at sign-ins, file shares, and file activity over the previous 12 months. Once an account is determined inactive, Dropbox deletes the files on the account.[20] To request access to the account of a deceased person, heirs are required to send appropriate documents by physical mail.[21]



In April 2013, Google announced the creation of the 'Inactive Account Manager', which allows users of Google services to set up a process in which ownership and control of inactive accounts is transferred to a delegated user.[22][23][24]

Google also allows users to submit a range of requests regarding accounts belonging to deceased users.[5] Google works with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to be deceased, and in certain circumstances may also provide content from a deceased user's account.[25]



Until 2010, Twitter (launched in July 2006) did not have a policy on handling deceased user accounts, and simply deleted timelines of deceased users.[26] In August 2010, Twitter allowed memorialization of accounts upon request from family members, and also provided them with an option of either deleting the account or obtaining a permanent backup of the deceased user's public tweets.[27]

In 2014, Twitter updated its policy to include an option to delete deceased user photographs. This policy was implemented after multiple Twitter trolls sent Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, photoshopped images of her father.[28]

As of January 2019, the only option that Twitter offered for the accounts of dead people was account deactivation. Previously published content is not removed. To deactivate an account Twitter requires an immediate family member to present a copy of their ID and a death certificate of the deceased.[13] Twitter specified that it does not provide account access to anyone,[29] but does allow people having account login information to continue posting. A prominent example is Roger Ebert's account maintained by his wife Chaz.[30][31]


In 2012, The Next Web columnist Martin Bryant noticed that since Twitter, unlike Facebook, did not have a "one account per real person" emphasis, memorializing accounts presented a difficulty to the service.[32] He also criticized the service for the lack of control over hacking of such accounts and disapproved the practice of passing dead people's usernames to new owners after a certain period of inactivity.[32]

In 2013, Variety ran a feature about Cory Monteith's Twitter account that had 1.5 million followers at the moment on his death and gained almost 1 million new followers afterwards. Monteith's fans also launched #DontDeleteCorysTwitter campaign.[33] As of January 2019, the celebrity's account had 1.64 million followers.[34]

Various media reported awkward incidents related to automatic posting and account hacking.[35][31]



iCloud and iTunes accounts are "non transferable" since the content is not owned — users only have a licence to access it.[36]


Users who have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia can be noted at a central memorial page. Wikipedia user pages are ordinarily fully edit-protected after the user has died, to prevent vandalism.


YouTube grants access to accounts of deceased persons under certain conditions.[37] It is one of the data options that one can select to give access to a trusted contact with Google's Inactive Account Manager.[38]



As of the COVID-19 pandemic, Instagram has notified its users of a delay in time of reviewing reports of deceased users due to the limited staff the pandemic has caused.[39] Users that submit a report on a deceased user on Instagram can either memorialize the account or remove it from Instagram's platform.[39] Through memorializing the account, Instagram secures and protects a platform of a deceased user, but per their policy, they do not supply any of the login credentials to the account.[40] For both memorializing or removing a deceased users account, a verified user needs to submit a tangible document that shows proof of death of the user.[39] However, to fully remove an account, the user must be a close or direct family member to the deceased person, and show proof of credibility as well.[39]



Microsoft has several policies in place when dealing with a deceased user's account.

Per Microsoft's policies, they do not supply any of the login credentials to a deceased user's Microsoft account.[41] A user does not have to contact or notify Microsoft of the deceased user, as the related user is able to close the account themselves. At default, Microsoft removes accounts after 2 years of inactivity.[42] If the user does not have access to the deceased user's account, Microsoft recommends that the user deletes all bank accounts linked to the one of the deceased to ensure no subscriptions are still going through.[41] If the user wants to request to gain access to the deceased user's account, a court order or a subpoena has to be provided to Microsoft, but does not guarantee access to the deceased user's account.[41]

For users that live in Germany, more documentation is needed to gain access of a deceased user's account, including the deceased user's death certificate, a form of ID, and a documentation of consent from the deceased.[41] The requesting user needs to provide a form of ID as well.[41]

Digital inheritance[edit]

Digital inheritance is the process of handing over personal digital assets to human beneficiaries. These digital assets include digital estates and the right to use them. It may include bank accounts, writings, photographs, and social interactions.

There are several services which store account passwords and send them to selected individuals after death. Some of these periodically send the customer an email to confirm that that person is still alive; after failure to respond to multiple emails, the service provider assumes that the person has died and will thereafter distribute the passwords as arranged.[43] The Data Inheritance function from SecureSafe gives an "activator code" that the customer transfers to a trusted individual, and in the event of death that individual enters the code into Secure Safe's system to get access to the deceased person's digital inheritance.[44] Legacy Locker and SafeBeyond require two persons to confirm the death, together with the presentation of a death certificate, before any passwords are distributed.[43]

Aimed at those concerned with their online privacy, platforms like LifeBank store a customer's Internet account passwords offline while ensuring that a trusted person is given permission to access the stored passwords upon the customer's death.

In July 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that an Evernote document the decedent had typed into his phone shortly before committing suicide was enforceable as valid will.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (2017-02-11). "Your Digital Inheritance: What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts When You Die?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2019-02-25.
  2. ^ Bisceglio, Paul (2013-08-20). "How Social Media Is Changing The Way We Approach Death". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  3. ^ Dilmac, Julie (2018). "The New Forms of Mourning: Loss and Exhibition of the Death on the Internet". Journal of Death and Dying. 77 (3): 280–295. doi:10.1177/0030222816633240. PMID 29940829. S2CID 49409504.
  4. ^ "We Live On the Internet. We Die Alone". Time. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  5. ^ a b Submit a request regarding a deceased user's account
  6. ^ How to request data from a deceased user's account?, archived from the original on 2010-07-31, retrieved 2010-07-01
  7. ^ "Yahoo Terms of Service".
  8. ^ "Yahoo releases e-mail of deceased Marine".
  9. ^ a b c Wortham, Jenna (July 17, 2010). "As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out". The New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  10. ^ Moore, Matthew (27 October 2009). "Facebook introduces 'memorial' pages to prevent alerts about dead members". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  11. ^ Leinwand Leger, Donna (February 12, 2015). "New Facebook policy allows social media immortality". USA Today. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  12. ^ Oremus, Will (February 12, 2015). "Dying on Facebook Just Got a Little Less Awkward". Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  13. ^ a b Ritschel, Chelsea (January 2, 2019). "What happens to your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts when you die". The Independent. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  14. ^ Notopoulos, Katie (January 4, 2013). "How Almost Anyone Can Take You Off Facebook (And Lock You Out)". BuzzFeed. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  15. ^ "'Facebook Dead' Prank: New Memorialization Page Can Lock Living Friend's Account". HuffPost. 7 January 2013. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  16. ^ Sheahan, Maria (May 31, 2017). "Parents have no right to dead child's Facebook account, German court says". Reuters. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  17. ^ Talwar Badam, Ramola (23 July 2018). "Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts can now be bequeathed in a legally binding will". The National (Abu Dhabi). Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  18. ^ Cruz, David (April 18, 2018). "Surviving family struggles with Facebook over photos on memorial page". NJTV. Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  19. ^ Smiley, Stephen (October 4, 2017). "Preparing for digital death: What do you know about the fate of your online accounts?". ABC News (Australia). Retrieved January 17, 2019.
  20. ^ "I got an email about an inactive Dropbox account. What do I need to do?". Dropbox. January 19, 2019. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  21. ^ "How to access the Dropbox account of someone who has passed away". Dropbox. January 19, 2019. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  22. ^ Tuerk, Andreas (April 11, 2013). "Plan your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager". Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  23. ^ James, Philip; Magee, Sheilagh (April 16, 2013). "Google RIP: What Inactive Account Manager means for your will". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  24. ^ "Who owns your data when you're dead?". The Economist. July 19, 2013. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  25. ^ "Submit a request regarding a deceased user's account - Google Account Help". Retrieved 2020-11-22.
  26. ^ Cheng, Jacqui (March 16, 2010). "Death and social media: what happens to your life online?". Ars Technica. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  27. ^ O'Dell, Jolie (August 10, 2010). "What Happens to Your Twitter Account When You Die?". Mashable. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  28. ^ Feinberg, Ashley (August 20, 2014). "How Twitter Could Beat the Trolls, And Why It Won't". Gizmodo. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  29. ^ "How to contact Twitter about media concerning a deceased family member". Twitter. 2019. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  30. ^ Schonfeld, Zach (August 5, 2013). "How Roger Ebert Managed His Digital Afterlife". The Atlantic. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  31. ^ a b Ohlheiser, Abby (May 20, 2016). "A question we never thought we would have to ask after someone dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  32. ^ a b Bryant, Martin (June 30, 2012). "Twitter should 'memorialize' our accounts when we die". The Next Web. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  33. ^ Khatchatourian, Maane (July 31, 2013). "The Memory of Cory Monteith Lives On (and On) via Social Media". Variety. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  34. ^ "Cory Monteith". Twitter. January 18, 2019. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  35. ^ Owoseje, Toyin (November 13, 2017). "'Are you alive?' Shyla Stylez fans freak out as dead porn star's Twitter continues to post". International Business Times. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  36. ^ "Digital property: can you bequeath your iTunes library?". The Week. January 31, 2014. Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  37. ^ Fix account problems: Obtaining a deceased person's YouTube videos, retrieved 13 July 2014
  38. ^ Plan your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager, retrieved 20 November 2014
  39. ^ a b c d "Help Center". Retrieved 2022-11-29.
  40. ^ Carroll, Evan (2014-04-18). "What happens to your Instagram account when you die? | The Digital Beyond". Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  41. ^ a b c d e "Accessing, OneDrive and other Microsoft services when someone has died - Microsoft Support". Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  42. ^ "How to close your Microsoft account - Microsoft Support". Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  43. ^ a b Duffy, Jill (2012-10-08). "Get Organized: Passing on Your Passwords". PC Magazine. PCMag Digital Group. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  44. ^ "When You Die Will Your Digital Data Die With You?". Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  45. ^ Note, Recent Case: Michigan Court of Appeals Holds Electronic Document to be Valid Will Under Harmless Error Rule, 132 Harv. L. Rev. 2082 (2019).

This paper discusses a solution to Splinternet a.k.a. Internet balkanization issue and different efforts underway for a resolution. It provides a 3-minute crisp Internet history, and the paper is designed for both tech and non-tech readers.

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