News / Science & Technology

In Death, Who Owns Your Online Afterlife?

This photo of Benjamin Stassen and his parents, Alice and Jay, was taken shortly before his suicide. His parents are trying to access various social media and email accounts to find clues as to why he took his life. (Courtesy Alice and Jay Stassen)
This photo of Benjamin Stassen and his parents, Alice and Jay, was taken shortly before his suicide. His parents are trying to access various social media and email accounts to find clues as to why he took his life. (Courtesy Alice and Jay Stassen)
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.
After futurist author and blogger Mac Tonnies died suddenly at 34, his friends and admirers were inspired to keep his legacy alive by freezing his blog to keep spam out, and creating blogs dedicated to him. (Courtesy The Tonnies Family)After futurist author and blogger Mac Tonnies died suddenly at 34, his friends and admirers were inspired to keep his legacy alive by freezing his blog to keep spam out, and creating blogs dedicated to him. (Courtesy The Tonnies Family)
x
After futurist author and blogger Mac Tonnies died suddenly at 34, his friends and admirers were inspired to keep his legacy alive by freezing his blog to keep spam out, and creating blogs dedicated to him. (Courtesy The Tonnies Family)
After futurist author and blogger Mac Tonnies died suddenly at 34, his friends and admirers were inspired to keep his legacy alive by freezing his blog to keep spam out, and creating blogs dedicated to him. (Courtesy The Tonnies Family)

“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.”

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Magnus from: UK
July 13, 2012 3:18 AM
Well, I trust I own all of my digital assets. I have been thinking on what happens after my death for a while now and I have found a company that lets me order my digital affairs when I'm gone. I have signed up with www.cirruslegacy.com which should I hope cover my bases :-)

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 12, 2012 6:55 AM
Beside the websites those owners are dead, there are already numerous websites not revised for a long time and left alone now. Do these all floating websites remain in internet forever? Even an internet cloud is too small to preserve all infos exploding day by day, isn't it?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More