Note: This is Part 2 in a series dealing with digital legacy, continuing my blog post from last week.
Before he left office, former Rep. Ryan Kiesel (D-Seminole) co-authored a bill in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that dealt with digital estates. House Bill 2800 took effect November 1, and aims to give control of social media profiles to legal executors. Michael Kimball of The Oklahoman explains:
The bill […] is the first of its kind in the US. It mandates that the executor of the estate has the authority to ‘take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts…on any social networking … microblogging … or email services websites’. Yes, that’s right, it claims to let executors take over your social media presence. This is based on the idea that such digital memories are the property of the creator to bequeath and mixes with copyright, contract and estate law.
Unfortunately, Terms of Service agreements are considered contracts, and it’s questionable if this law could really override contract law. How many people actually read the entire Terms of Service agreements for sites they use, though?
Below is a list of some of the more popular social media sites and a summary of their policies concerning profiles of deceased users.
Upon a person’s death, Facebook will not provide login information for the account to anyone. However, heirs of the deceased can either request that the profile be deleted or that it be “memorialized”.
According to Facebook, “Memorializing an account sets the account privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. The Wall remains, so friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.” The Facebook team initiated the memorial mode after one of its employees passed away.
Last October, the site also began offering an option for users to archive their own profile information. I finally tried it for the first time this week and was pleased with the results.
I had to request the archive, then wait for an email notification that my download was ready. When it was ready, I downloaded the 95 MB Zip file from a link inside the email. Once extracted, all of the files are sorted into folders and there is an index.html file with links to all of your Facebook material that’s now backed up onto your hard drive, including your profile info, wall posts (status updates, your posted links, and subsequent comments from friends, etc.), uploaded photo albums, a list of friends (sans links to their profiles), notes, events to which you RSVPed “yes” or “maybe,” and Inbox messages threaded with back and forth replies.
Twitter’s policy says that the site “cannot allow access to the account or disclose other non-public information regarding the account.” The company will remove the account of a deceased user upon request, and/or provide an archive of public tweets.
In the grander scheme of things, the Library of Congress has been archiving Twitter since April 2010. The collection includes all public tweets since the site’s inception in 2006.
[W]e’ll need you to email us proof of death, such as an obituary or death certificate at [email protected] Please write us from your personal email address and tell us how you’re related to the deceased, and include the deceased user’s Myspace friend ID along with your specific request to either delete or preserve the profile, or to remove content.
The site won’t give access to anyone to edit or delete the content or settings of another user’s profile, but will “be sure to review and remove any content you find objectionable.”
Neither a search of WordPress.com’s Terms of Service nor a cursory Web search uncovered any sort of policy for dealing with blogs of the deceased. This pertains only to blogs hosted on WordPress.com, not self-hosted blogs that use the WordPress software, of course.
No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability. You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.
There doesn’t seem to be an umbrella policy for Google like there is for Yahoo!, but I’ve listed information for some of its services below.
YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, has one of the few policies I’ve read that specifically mentions Power of Attorney. It’s also one of the few that will give account access to someone other than the original user. If the deceased was under the age of 18, however, Power of Attorney is not required in order to access the account.
Blogger, also owned by Google, does not specify handling of deceased members’ blogs in its Terms of Service, but searching through the Help Forum provides some clues. Basically, ownership of a Blogger account rests with whomever owns the particular Google email address associated with the account, so the rules for Gmail will probably apply here until something is released pertaining specifically to Blogger.
Gmail, another subsidiary of Google, has a policy that allows access to a deceased user’s email account in “some cases,” although it doesn’t specify what those situations would be. Part of the application process for this requires a “Probate — or other Court Order stating that you are the lawful representative of the deceased’s estate.” If the deceased was under the age of 18, a birth certificate is needed instead.
I could not find any reference to decedents in the Terms of Service for Hotmail, which is owned by Microsoft. The Windows Live Solution Center, however, contains instructions for gaining access to the content of the deceased’s emails: “[W]e will send you a copy of any email messages that may be stored on the account, along with any existing contact lists to facilitate communication with individuals with whom the user was corresponding.” Account ownership cannot be transferred, and passwords will not be released or changed, but the account can be closed upon request with proper documentation.
The main issue with most sites’ policies is the lack of what’s known in the estate planning world as desired intent. The websites themselves do not give users the power to dictate handling of their own accounts upon death. Perhaps the policies will catch up to actual needs and desires, but in the meantime, if your digital legacy is something that matters to you, definitely follow the advice of the team at TheDigitalBeyond.com.
Source: “Oklahoma law aims to give control of social network profiles to people’s will executors,” NewsOK, 11/28/10
Source: “Privacy: Deactivating, Deleting, and Memorializing Accounts,” Facebook Help Center
Source: “Security: How do I report abuse?,” Facebook Help Center
Source: “Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook,” The Facebook Blog, 10/26/09
Source: “Download Your Facebook Photos, Posts, and More,” Computerworld, 10/06/10
Source: “How to Contact Twitter About a Deceased User,” Twitter Help Center
Source: “Yahoo! Terms of Service,” Yahoo
Source: “I need access to the account of a deceased YouTube member,” YouTube Help Articles
Source: “Accessing a deceased person’s mail,” Gmail Help
Source: “How to request data from a deceased user’s account?,” Windows Live Solution Center
Image by Mischa Tuffield, used under its Creative Commons license.