Tags: digital | data | death | Facebook

The Economist: Our Digital Data Has a Murky Afterlife

Monday, 22 Jul 2013 09:38 AM

By John Morgan

Who owns your digital data after you die? The Economist investigated, and found the answer is somewhere in the clouds, as companies like Google and Facebook have different policies on posthumous online property.

In short, there is apparently no established body of law that covers the digital afterlife of Internet users.

"After we die, our bodies are reduced to dust or ash, through burial or cremation," The Economist noted. "The fate of the digital corpuses we leave behind is rather more complicated."

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While centuries of tradition provide a basis on how to proceed with money or physical property, digital assets stored on shared servers are so new that the legal system has not caught up.

Five states have passed laws on the topic, but their interpretations are wildly different, and there are no federal laws, The Economist reported.

"To complicated matters further, Internet firms may be based in different countries from their users, and may store data in servers in many countries, making it unclear whose laws would apply."

Anyone looking for private industry to clarify the ground rules on digital property of the dearly departed is probably going to be disappointed.

The Economist found many companies seem to have their own set of rules, procedures and terms of service.

For instance, Facebook limits survivors to requesting either that an account be removed or be turned into a memorial site. Twitter will deactivate an account with the right proof of death, but it "is unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased."

But there may be a glimmer of progress on the corporate level. Google recently released the "Inactive Account Manager," which allows users of its service to establish a digital will. In addition, the Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan group that crafts model legislation for states, has named a "Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets" committee to work on the issue.

In 2012, there were 30 million accounts on Facebook of people who had died, according to ReadWrite.

"People are starting to incorporate their digital property and online presence into their wills," said Michaelanne Dye, who holds a master's degree in cyberanthropology from Georgia State University, ReadWrite reported. "Although this has not yet become a common trend, I think that one day it will be fairly common for people to make plans for their digital real estate before passing."

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