Death and the Internet
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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
Gmail and Hotmail 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. 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.
In the early days Facebook used to delete profiles of dead people. In October 2009, the company introduced “memorial pages” responding to multiple user request related to Virginia Tech shooting (2007). After receiving a proof of death via a special form the profile was converted into a tribute page with minimal personal details, where friends and family members could share their grief.
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.  It also gave Facebook users an option to have their account permanently deleted when they die.
As of January 2019, all of the 3 options were active.
In 2017, Reuters reported that a German court rejected a mother’s demand to access her deceased daughter’s memorized account stating that the right to private telecommunications outweighed the right to inheritance. In July 2018, Dubai’s DIFC Courts ruling clarified that Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts should be bequeathed in legally binding will.
Social media network has also been criticized for not responding to relative’s requests to alter information on memorized accounts. Another popular criticism is that Facebook users don’t realize that their content is ultimately owned not by them, but by Facebook.
Dropbox determines inactive accounts by looking at sign-ins, file shares, and file activity over the last 12 months. Dropbox deletes all the files stored on inactive accounts an account is inactive, the service will close it and all the files will be deleted. To request access to the account of someone who has passed away, heirs will need to send a certain amount of documents by mail (not by an email). Alternatively, files of deceased users can be accessed via the dedicated Dropbox folder on their computer, which syncs to their account online.
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.
Google also allows users to submit a range of requests regarding accounts belonging to deceased users. Google can work 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 provide content from a deceased user's account.
MySpace will allow a memorial to be set up to honor deceased users.
Until 2010, Twitter (launched in July 2006) didn’t have a policy on handling deceased user accounts, and just deleted timelines of users who have passed. In August 2010, Twitter allowed to memorialize accounts upon request from family members and provided them with an option of either deleting the account or obtaining a permanent backup of the deceased user's public tweets.
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. Twitter specifies that it doesn’t provide account access to anyone, but allowed people having login and password to continue posting. A popular example is Roger Ebert’s account supported by his wife Chaz.
In 2012, The Next Web columnist Martin Bryant noticed that since Twitter, unlike Facebook, didn’t have ‘one account per real person’ emphasis, memorializing accounts presented a difficulty to the service. 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.
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. As of January 2019, celebrity’s account had 1.64 million followers.
iCloud and iTunes accounts are “non transferable” since the content is not owned - users have a licence to access it.
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. It is one of the data options that one can select to give access to a trusted contact with Google's Inactive Account Manager.
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 that offer to keep multiple passwords, sending them to people of personal choice after death. Some of these send the customer an email from time to time, prompting to confirm that that person is still alive, and failure to respond to multiple emails makes the service provider to assume that the person has deceased, and will thereafter give out the passwords as previously requested. The Data Inheritance function from SecureSafe gives an "activator code" that the customer will hand to another trustworthy person of personal choice, and in the event of death that person then enters the code into Secure Safe's system to get access to the deceased person's digital inheritance. Legacy Locker and SafeBeyond require two verifiers who both must confirm the death, as well as providing a death certificate, before any passwords will be handed out.
For those who are paranoid about their online Privacy, platforms like LifeBank offer a helpful secure capability to store all internet account passwords offline whilst ensuring that a trusted person is given permission to access the individual's LifeBank when they die. This gives the inheritor the ability to access and edit accounts, including deleting information or indeed the entire account.
- Digital immortality
- Digital preservation
- Online identity
- Submit a request regarding a deceased user's account
- How to request data from a deceased user's account?
- "Yahoo Terms of Service".
- "Yahoo releases e-mail of deceased Marine".
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