What happens to “your” Data after your Death?

Juliana Ribeiro Campos, journalist from the City of Campo Grande, Brazil, died in May 2012 from complications following surgery. She was only 24 years old. As is quite common these days, outpours of grief from her friends and co-workers began to fill her Facebook page. You may think that this is strange, even weird, but remember that we often go to cemeteries and talk to our dearly departed. A neutral observer might observe us talking to decorative stones, all alone by ourselves, however, that is considered socially acceptable. When we post on deceased’s Facebook page, we do not expect an answer any more than we expect to receive a reply to our tears from a tombstone. If Facebook is not notified that death changed the page owner’s status, everything continues as usual: friends can write posts on the wall, they will get the usual birthday reminders etc. However, if one of the relatives or close friends notifies Facebook that the person is deceased, the page’s status is changed to ”мemorial page” with some of the functionality limited (of course, no more birthday reminders, no new friends etc.). The deceased’s Facebook friends can still visit the page and leave their comments, post messages and photos, turning the wall into a memorial site for the living to commemorate the deceased friend and remember ”good old days”, continuing the emotional threads that bound them to the deceased. Juliana’s mother Dolores Pereira Coutinho was very upset by the fact that her daughter’s profile was active. She informed Facebook that her daughter passed away, and asked the service to delete the profile. Instead, Facebook changed it to memorial page. Mrs Coutinho was still deeply distressed by the fact that late Juliana’s friends kept posting their messages (full of compassion and respect) to her late daughter’s profile. She found that the messages and memorials posted by Juliana’s friends turned the page into a “wailing wall”. As Facebook didn’t respond to her requests for deleting the page, she started a legal action, which resulted in, not one but two, court orders to delete the page, or face imprisonment! Finally, in May of 2013 Facebook deleted the page.

How often do these situations occur? Maybe a few of us had a few Facebook friends who passed away, but it’s not all that common, is it? I mean, the commercially available Internet is still young, just about 25 yrs old, and we’re not all that much older, aren’t we? On Webpagefx Blog a revealing Infographic is showing us that in the first 8 years of Facebook around 30 million of its users died. If the number of Facebook users stagnates by 2065 there will be more profiles of deceased people, than of living ones. If Facebook keeps on acquiring new users the crossover year will be in 2135!

Some other networks are also developing procedures for post mortem treatment of their user’s accounts. Google has a dedicated support page where your descendants can start one of the predefined procedures, but there is also another page where you can (in timely manner) decide in advance what you want to do with your account once you are not able to maintain it yourself – Inactive Account Manager.

Instagram, similar to Facebook, allows a memorialized account, after a predefined procedure is followed.

Twitter has a procedure that can help descendants deactivate the account. However that is all. No one will be provided account access, regardless of his/her relationship to the deceased.

Pinterest will close the deceased person’s account, after being contacted by family member, without providing any access to the account.

PayPal has a procedure which implies that a deceased person’s estate executor needs to fax the documents listed on this address to +1 402 537 5732.

Yahoo is also aware that users are passing away, but there are no other options than closing the account (without any access to any of the content to anyone). They provided the following explanation: ”Unfortunately, Yahoo cannot provide passwords or allow access to the deceased’s account, including account content such as email. At the time of registration, all account holders agree to the Yahoo Terms (TOS). Pursuant to the Terms, neither the Yahoo account nor any of the content therein are transferable, even when the account owner is deceased.”

And so the list of on-line services goes on, with similar variations on the same set of rules, mostly those we agreed upon when signing a contract with the service provider. And, yes, you DID sign a contract, even though it might have seemed to you just like a casual “Yup, just let me in” when you clicked on the “I agree” or “I accept” button on the account sign-in form. Whatever was in those Terms of Service (unread by at least three quarters of the users, and claimed to be understood by only 17% of the remaining quarter) is legally binding.

There is even an on-line project named “Terms Of Service; Didn’t Read” (@ToSDR) that claims: “I have read and agree to the Terms” is the biggest lie on the web. We aim to fix that”, and is dedicated to rating and labeling website terms & privacy policies.

Is it really your data?

Whose data could it be – I sent those emails, I posted those statuses, sent those tweets, uploaded photos and videos, commented on other statuses, faved and retweeted other people’s tweets, regranned their pictures etc etc. You might have been the creator and decision maker of all the content, but read again the contract you signed. Odds are, all the content created by you belongs to the service provider, and is non-transferable.

What might infuriate you even more is the fact that the content you purchased (like e-books, music libraries, video clips) is your’s to use (while you are able to), but can not be passed on to your descendants, the way you would pass your book library, vinyl records, CDs, video and audio cassettes.

Service providers need your data to improve the quality of their service(s), or so they say. So, it’s not about selling your (meta) data to the highest bidder, but only to get better acquainted with your preferences, so they are better met. How about turning tables? How about service providers asking your permission to use your data (as they do now, remember the Terms of Service), promising to let go of it, in it’s entirety, when you decide to stop using their services? That is a provocative theme more suited  for another blog post. For the time being we are just dealing with existing ToS, in which you renounce your copyright on everything you create, and everything you buy and use is protected by copyright holders.

What can (or should) you do?

What particular actions should/could we make to ensure that the integrity of our on-line existence is preserved after our passing?

First of all – make an inventory of all of your digital possessions. Be warned, even if you are an average internet user, it might be quite a demanding activity.

It would be wise to start with financial content – your bank accounts and bank card details. Beware, a simple list of user_name/password combinations, sealed in an envelope and labeled with the name of the person you trust, or your legal descendants, might not be in agreement with the contract you signed (most likely in paper form) with your bank. If you want to authorize someone else to use your bank account, check with your bank what is their policy on this authorization after your passing. Pay special attention to those services that are provided by various financial processors through the banks’ platform and not by banks directly.

What about all the digital content you purchased so far? Collections of various digital content (e-books, sound, video) which are hosted “in the Cloud” and used on your various digital devices (e-book readers, smartphones, tablets, notebooks). When you make a list of those, check for Terms of Service – what exactly are your rights according to ToS? Can you give instructions for transfer of the “ownership”, or are you personally locked forever and the contract is non-transferable. PWC survey of UK consumers found that value of digital assets is £25 billion. Stunning 75% of all the respondents said their children would not be able to access their digital media if they died. Even if they could, there is a question of compliance with respective service ToS. It is likely that it would be easier to regulate your bank services, as financial institutions have more clearly established procedures for transferring your financial account ownership than other on-line financial services. What about the credit remaining in your Skype account? Or the balance you had in your Skrill account? When we look at the Skrill ToS it says:
“Every person who identifies him/herself by entering the correct login email and password is assumed by Skrill to be the rightful account holder/Customer and all transactions where the login email and password have been entered correctly will be regarded as valid and authorized by the Customer”. Is that an invitation for you to leave your Skrill credentials in a sealed envelope with instructions about the designated person who can use your Skrill account as per your desire?

After you (hopefully) settle all the issues with your financial services, what about the plethora of content you created over your digital life-time? All those posts, tweets, retweets, likes and shares have an undisclosed, but certain, financial value for the respective service providers. Are you willing to let them reap the benefits of your on-line social activities for an unspecified future time? For your family and friends your lifetime activities in social networks are the equivalent of old photo albums, postcards and letters. Remember when you discovered in the attic the dusty bundle of letters from your great-grand-father or mother. Or those cracked and faded sepia photostats from important “life events” (back then not every bagel & coffee where saved for posterity). Do you remember the emotional gratification you experienced from this peek into the distant past? Think about your great-grandchildren browsing through your timeline of trivial and important events (all those nail polished toes dominating the sea horizon, hundreds of vacation photos,…). Maybe the thought humiliates you, but you can be sure that for them it would be also a gratifying experience to get to know you decades later. Your YouTube channel could be the future equivalent of (still rare) electronic frame on your tombstone. Should it all go into oblivion, or stay preserved for posterity? The decision should be yours, and yours alone, but executing your wishes is still a tricky project.

There are services that promise you to handle all of your digital accounts – whether you want to delete them or preserve them. Planned Departure is one of them. It offers a comprehensive portfolio of services for preserving your digital assets: “Your digital legacy is important. Don’t let it get lost, locked in the cyber-world or stolen. Leave it to people you trust and know will cherish your memories.”. Going beyond legacy preservation to “Store your important documents such as passports, visas and travel insurance in our electronic vault. Never miss a thing again”. Pricing is flexible – from £1.99 per month, to onetime charge of £199.99. Website is attractive, and responsive, as it should be these days. There is just one minor detail that might make prospective customer think twice about investing in this particular offer. The WHOIS request on the planneddeparture.com domain owner reflects that the identity of the registrant is protected by Whois Privacy Protect. Being a strong proponent of Whois protection and the right for everyone to be “anonymous” on-line, whenever desired (provided it’s within the limits of the law) I find it hard to accept that a commercial company prefers to have owner’s whois data hidden. Not to mention the fact that domain expires in 2015, and we’re talking about a service that is making serious promises. I would expect a registrant of the domain name to show some faith in own business’ perspective, that would be measured in more than one year (domains can be registered for up to 10 years). Domain name is content as much as text, graphics and video on your web site. You will be judged not just by what you claim on your web site, but also by the manner in which you have registered your domain name!

Managing our digital assets is the integral part of managing all of our assets. In some ways it closely resembles handling of our tangible property. There are new circumstances, both technological and social, that  require new approaches to handling our on-line presence, for as long as we are cyber active, and beyond. Our lives do not just leave a digital footprint. Our digital activities are becoming our lives in unprecedented ways, which need to be addressed accordingly.

In the time of Internet, and Social networks in particular, ”Always” and ”Forever” have a new meaning, that we are yet to fully comprehend.