Search for the late actor and comedian Robin Williams on Facebook and you’ll quickly come to an invitation to “connect” to him. That could be difficult, to say the least. The much-beloved Academy Award winner departed this earthly realm four months ago. His page is now set up to receive tributes from his considerable fan base.
The last entry on his Facebook page is a four-sentence message from “Team RW” thanking those fans for their outpouring of support in the wake of his death. The message is posted on Aug. 11, the day he died, and its presence suggests that someone in Williams’ family or circle of close friends had access to his account in order to express their gratitude to well-wishers.
Could someone do the same for you if you suddenly died? Apparently not. In fact, it seems that your family or estate executors would be seriously hampered in their efforts to access your social media, email and online entertainment or financial accounts. Under current law, it is illegal to access another’s digital accounts without the person’s prior approval, and many online companies keep the deceased’s logins and passwords confidential, even from family members.
State Sen. Dorothy Hukill seeks to clarify this burgeoning digital-age issue. The Port Orange Republican has filed a bill that would allow designated individuals to have access to digital accounts of people who have died or become incapacitated. Delaware this year became the first state to pass such a law to grant heirs full access to the digital legacy of the deceased.
Hukill’s legislation fills a technological gap in privacy law. Existing rules were established when one’s documentation and mementos were stored in filing cabinets, desk drawers and boxes — long before that information was uploaded to remote computer servers and held by third parties.
In one high-profile case in 2004, Yahoo denied the family of a U.S. Marine killed in combat in Iraq access to his email account. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a Toronto family’s anguished attempts to enter their deceased teenage daughter’s online life — Alison Atkins’ Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yahoo and Hotmail accounts, which contained pictures, messages and poems she had written. As with most such sites, after a period of inactivity, they shut down unless a user logs in with the password.
Those online services refused to divulge Alison’s passwords to her family because doing so would violate the terms of service agreements Alison had approved when she signed up. The companies — bizarrely, given the circumstances — maintain that divulging the passwords would violate Alison’s privacy. Some families have sought court-ordered access to online accounts, with various success. Some companies comply quickly; others drag the process out. Estate laws vary by state, adding to the confusion. Even writing digital clauses into wills might not guarantee heirs access.
Under Hukill’s bill, an executor, personal representative, trustee or guardian would treat such electronic property as part of an estate’s assets, and those representatives could inventory the digital accounts as with other physical assets and dispose of them properly. To gain access to those accounts, a request would be sent to companies that act as the custodians, such as Google or Facebook
In a news release, the senator rightly noted that this issue might not have been one that people considered before, but it has emerged as a definite concern that should be planned for now.
“Digital assets are an ever expanding aspect of our lives,” Hukill said in a statement, “and as they become more essential in the way that we conduct our personal, professional and financial affairs, we need to ensure that, should the inevitable happen, an individual’s digital assets are handled according to their final wishes.”
Internet companies have opposed such legislation, citing privacy concerns. Perhaps they fear that opening them up would expose the accounts to hackers who could raid them for vital personal information or to some ne’er-do-well who would malign, vandalize or otherwise mistreat the deceased’s account and reputation. If so, that is a valid concern. A lack of proper safeguards could expose companies to more than an irate phone call or email. However, the companies can change their service agreements to permit posthumous access to an executor. Assuredly, the rules must be modernized to reflect how our lives have conformed to changing technology.