Open Thread Wednesday: Digital Life After Death

Open Thread Wednesday: Digital Life After Death

Stairs to Heaven

Although this is a post about digital death, it is not meant to be morose or anything. I just occasionally think of this problem, and while discussing it privately with Jim Groom (co-founder of Reclaim Hosting) recently, I thought it might be worth asking other academics what they are thinking of doing about this. My two questions are:

  1. What happens to a person’s website on their own domain when they die? (currently – it basically dies)
  2. What happens to a person’s digital purchases (Kindle, Audible, iTunes, etc) when they die? (currently, they go back to Amazon/Apple)

The first question might seem an arrogant one to ask – how important is my blog anyway? But I also think about a lot of other academics whose blogs I value, and whose blogs I occasionally cite in peer-reviewed articles of mine. If their blog or website is on, say, wordpress.com, their website will live on as long as wordpress.com exists; if they write in a journal/magazine, their content will probably outlive them; however, if it is on their own domain, this means their website/blog will only live as long as they keep renewing the hosting and domain name. This could end within their lifetime (e.g. not being able to use a credit card for some reason), but will almost definitely happen after they die. At the moment, this is something some of us are thinking about, but I have not yet heard a solution to it. What could one do? Leave a small fund for our heirs to pay to renew the hosting? Pay someone like Reclaim Hosting in advance for a few years? Convert our website into a PDF and pay to host it somewhere safe? Like maybe our university’s repository (if they value our blogging as much as our peer-reviewed writing)? What about non-academics? And no, the Way Back Machine is not really a full solution to this problem, because, as I understand it, it saves webpages not entire websites.

The second question is probably one that more people should be concerned about. I have books that my grandfather had left my father. My child currently reads books that were mine as a child. What happens to all my Kindle books after I’m gone? I pay so much money for Kindle books, and yet the only obvious way to pass those on to someone else is to either give them my phone/iPad (already logged onto Kindle and has access to the cloud) or give them my Amazon.com password – but those don’t seem like good solutions – hardware has a limited lifespan, and the password solution? Imagine accumulating all those passwords from generations of relatives. And what about if I wanted to give my academic books to a colleague and the children’s books to my child? I’m also thinking about my iTunes library. I lived through the time of seeing my parents’ vinyl records (useless by the time I was born), audio and video cassettes (nearly useless by the time I finished college) and CDs/DVDs (still in use, but much less so than downloadable purchases). I recognize that media and hardware change constantly and that even if we pass music/video onto future generations, formats may become obsolete. The paper on physical books becomes yellow and fragile but you can take care of books and we know they can last. Cassettes or such can be digitized. But DRM material? At the moment, there is no easy legal way to pass this stuff on. These are apparently questions others have asked – I found a Wikipedia page on digital inheritance, with references you may want to check out. It seems like a waste of money to buy a Kindle book if no one will be able to read it other than me (side note: lending is allowed for some books; maybe inheritance can be managed the same way).

What is ironic in all of this, is that what does remain after you die are your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. Because… yeah… those spaces representing your identity actually belong to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, rather than you.

How to prepare for digital life after death

How to prepare for digital life after death

As many people spend more and more of their lives online, preparing for what happens to your digital assets after death is becoming increasingly important, lawyers say.

According to Dan Nelson, a partner at Civis Law LLP, your digital legacy can be valuable on an “emotional,” “reputational” and even “financial” level.

“It’s the obvious things, your Facebook, your Twitter, your blog,” he said. “And it’s much more detailed things. It might be your online gambling account. It could be something embarrassing like your Ashley Madison account. Or it could be your World of Warcraft account.”

Woman on laptop
A woman uses a laptop (Flickr/ Alli Worthington)
Lawyer Dan Nelson
Dan Nelson, a partner at Civis Law LLP, speaks about leaving online accounts behind after death.

Often, Nelson said, account providers will shut down accounts after they learn that the owner is deceased.

But this could lock loved ones out of troves of meaningful photos, blog posts or even lucrative online holdings.

Because of this, Nelson encourages social media users to consider working their digital assets into their wills.

“We certainly want to include language in the will to empower executors to extract this digital data,” he said.

However, Nelson warned not to include passwords in wills, as that could void your agreement with the account provider.

“We have providers who say ‘if you sign up for our account, it’s our account,'” he said. “You are prohibited from sharing that password and if they catch you, it’s grounds to terminate the account.”

Digital life after death

Digital life after death

When a person dies, friends and relatives must decide whether to delete all the deceased’s data or to ensure the digital survival of the deceased. A huge amount of data and information is collected about people during their lifetimes, and the growth of professional and personal social networks (eg, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram and Google+) is increasing this phenomenon.

Existing legal void

As the digital era continues, an increasing number of social network user accounts belong to deceased persons. The French data protection authority, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), has estimated that 1% of all Facebook profiles worldwide (130 million profiles) belong to a deceased person.

During their lifetimes all people have the right to access, modify and delete their data (eg, photos, lifestyle and professional data). However, these rights attach to the person and do not continue when he or she dies.

Unlike inheritance law, which recognises heirs as the continuation of the deceased person, in regard to digital matters the heirs have no right to stop the use of processed data or recover data if the deceased person expressed no last wishes.

Only Article 40 of the Data Protection Act (78-17) deals with the data of deceased persons, and simply provides that “the heirs of a deceased person, providing proof of their identity, may… require the data controller to take the death into account and update the data accordingly”.

Given the challenges posed by digital data and information, in communications of October 29 and 31 2014 the CNIL evoked the balance that must be struck between the right to be forgotten and digital immortality.(1) However, the CNIL highlighted that it was not its role to arbitrate on this issue, and therefore called on the public authorities and internet stakeholders to debate this issue. Some scholars have suggested that inspiration could be drawn from the regime governing the transmission of copyright after death, which allows the transmission of personality rights.(2)

Bill for Digital Republic

In response to this issue, the government has published the Bill for a Digital Republic, which proposes to supplement Article 40 by allowing a person to “set instructions relating to the retention and disclosure of his/her personal data after his/her death”.

Therefore, before people die, they may decide how they “wish their rights under this Act to be exercised after their death”. The instructions may cover all processing of the instructing party’s data or only specific data.

Most importantly, the bill provides that in the absence of instructions, the “heirs may exercise the rights of access, rectification and opposition after his or her death”. Therefore, if the bill is passed, heirs will be allowed to inherit certain personal rights.

Lastly, the bill creates a new obligation for all data hosts, which will have to inform users as to what will happen to their data after they die and allow them to choose whether to pass their data onto a designated third party.

Consequences for economic operators

Some digital operators have taken the lead by stipulating in their terms of use what will happen to a user’s data when he or she dies. Facebook already allows a user to designate a ‘legacy contact’ – that is, someone chosen to manage the deceased person’s account and who may be authorised to upload an archive of shared information (except for correspondence, in particular, which is protected by secrecy laws).(3)Further, Google has set up an inactive account manager which allows users to share part of their account data or let a contact know if the account has been inactive for a certain time.(4)

If the bill is passed, data controllers will have to deal with new constraints and new types of request.

Indeed, even though it is hosts, publishers and digital platforms which will primarily be affected, any data controller may have to deal with requests from trusted third parties or heirs and set up measures to ensure that requests to access, modify or delete reflect the deceased person’s last wishes or the heirs’ wishes. This will not be an easy task, and it is likely that the CNIL will often be called on to intervene in difficult circumstances.

Therefore, estate planning should take these new digital issues into account, and it would be entirely appropriate to address them in wills. As a result, notaries will have to consider these new issues when drafting documents. Users need to ask themselves a very real question about the virtual world: digital oblivion or digital eternity?

For further information on this topic please contact Matthieu Dary or Alexandre Diouf at FIDAL by telephone (+33 1 46 24 30 30) or email (matthieu.dary@fidal.com or alexandre.diouf@fidal.com). The FIDAL website can be accessed at www.fidal.com.