Bang! You're dead. Who gets your email, iTunes and Facebook?

Death and the medium


Two things in life are certain: death and taxes. Amazon and other international corporations have found ways* around the latter, but no one can avoid the former.

In the age of Facebook and Google accounts, and with the existence of services such as iTunes where people invest considerable sums in entirely virtual goods, the question needs to be asked: What happens to your online profile and assets in the event of your passing?

Nobody likes to contemplate their death, but in the analogue world we make arrangements - in terms of a will. So why not include online?

Social networks are a huge repository of assets – documents and pictures. iTunes zealots might have invested in libraries stretching to tens of thousands of titles – is that part of the deceased person’s estate?

Not as far as some tech firms are concerned.

There are two parts to dealing effectively with your earthly IT estate: the physical devices and the content of online services. Given the declining cost of hardware, I’d argue the greater value lies in the digital stuff online. Your digital legacy has residual value and it needs to be treated as a valuable asset.

Obtaining access to online accounts of deceased family members has often been a fraught experience. Just over a decade ago, the argument regarding ownership of digital content came to a head when the family of the soldier Justin Ellsworth sued Yahoo! to get access to his email account after his death. Yahoo! only handed over the data when ordered by a court, despite being shown proof of Justin's passing.

In response Yahoo! changed its policy with regard to what happens after death and effectively, when a user passes, so does the account. It's in the terms of service. Bummer. With regards to other service providers, the way in which they deal with a user's death varies dramatically. Some providers won't even entertain the notion of doing anything, the Yahoo! approach.

Other providers will, with proof of passing, present a number of options. Some services even provide a dead man's switch that will enable your loved ones to gain some degree of account or information recovery after the event.

Google inactive account manager provides a dead-hand mechanism, configurable ahead of time, to allow the contents of an account to either be completely removed or released to up to 10 nominated contacts - assuming they have the required identification for security purposes. To make it crystal clear, your account will not be available for login. Access to the service will not be granted. This process only delivers the content rather than reclaiming the account.

It would also be good manners to let your next of kin/nominated representative know these options are set on your account. To get that email without realising you were the nominated person could be very distressing. The information required to recover an account usually consists of: birth certificate, death certificate, proof of assignment over the account in question.


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