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July 11, 2012

In Death, Who Owns Your Online Afterlife?

by Adam Phillips

NEW YORK — Along with the explosive growth of email, social media and other online accounts opened around the world in recent years, is a trove of personal digital data most Internet users find easier to leave dangling in cyberspace than to manage carefully and securely.

But what happens to our digital data - and who controls our personal online legacies - when we die? It's a question that raises both legal and ethical concerns, which can leave families and friends frustrated when trying to control a loved one's online afterlife.

Facebook owns all contents
    
When he took his own life in 2010, Benjamin Stassen, 21, seemed like a carefree, well-adjusted Wisconsin college student. Since his death, his parents have searched, mostly in vain, for clues to help them understand his desperate act.     

"We’ve had such an overwhelming experience with Benjamin’s death," says Alice Stassen, his mother.
 
"That’s why we’ve tried to pursue some of these social media or email accounts, to try to come to some understanding of what might be happening,” says his father, Jay Stassen.

The Stassens were especially keen to access their son’s Facebook account, which likely contains many of his private messages. However, according to the lengthy user agreement Benjamin signed - which, like most people, he probably never bothered to read - the company owns the contents of his accounts.

His father says it was a challenge even to get in touch with the company, much less obtain the access he sought as a bereaved parent.  

“If you search on the home page of Facebook for an email address, a mailing address, a phone number, a contact person to assist in a situation like we’ve been in, you will find a dearth of information," Jay says. "And it seems, at this point, that that is by design.”

The couple got a court order requiring Facebook to grant access, but the company, which declined to be interviewed for this story, has yet to comply.

Online legacy

When Mac Tonnies, 34, died unexpectedly in his sleep in 2009, he left behind many online friends and admirers of his futuristic blog, "Post-Human Blues."

Reading it was both a comfort and a revelation for his mother who, until then, she had stayed clear of his online world.
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“It’s very much him. It’s his voice," Dana Tonnies says. "He was very opinionated and that all came out in his blog and we have read it from the start. And some of it was a little surprising.”  

The family says it has been unable to gain control of the website from Google, the blog host.

Consequently, the maintenance which Mac had always done, has stopped and the comment section has filled up with unwelcome advertising.

Google did not respond to an interview request. Tonnies’ friend, computer artist Dia Sobin, is angry no one can even step in to clean up the site.   

“It’s really like a desecration to find spam in the comment section in that blog, which almost has become like a virtual burial plot," Sobin says. "It’s like finding dog excrement or a beer can. That kind of tells you about virtual society, too.”  

Gray area

Attorney John Boucher keeps up to date on digital rights and the law. He is embarrassed to admit that he and his wife have signed many online user agreements, without reading them first, and he wouldn’t know how to access her accounts.     

“I have no clue. So there is a dual problem here," he says. "One is people don’t think about it. And two, even if they do, they might find they are legally barred from doing it. I personally think there are going to be model laws drafted to deal with all these circumstances. But there’s going to be a gray area for the foreseeable future.”

Some entrepreneurs have stepped into that gray area, promising consumers a way to take back some control over their digital legacies.

One way to do this is by uploading their online accounts and passwords to a digital vault. Companies are given instructions about which files to destroy and which to pass on to a designated executor when the customer dies.

Taking control

Others, like web developer Mark Plattner, another of Mac Tonnie’s friends, take a more independent, technical approach. He recently used a program called Sitesucker to download all the contents of Mac’s blog. He then uploaded a replica of the blog to a new site under his control.  

“I am really happy with how it turned out because we have kept his presence online, something he was really interested in, a digital legacy …for people to stumble across and learn about who Mac was and as an artifact of late 20th century, early 21st century thought,” Plattner says.

He advises that, whatever one’s position on the online rights of individuals versus corporations, “planning one’s digital legacy is a good idea for everyone in our increasingly wired age. Don’t be passive,” he says, "and get to work on your online afterlife now.”