Life after death is a topic that has kept some of the greatest minds occupied for millennia. It’s something we tend to shy away from talking about, but unfortunately, death and grieving are inevitable realities of being human. With ground-breaking research happening in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, […]
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:
- What happens to a person’s website on their own domain when they die? (currently – it basically dies)
- 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.
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.”
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.”
As a full-time parent to two young children, Aaron Saltzman’s ‘real’ day job provides practical, hands-on experience for the position of CBC’s Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs. Nearly 20 years experience in television, radio and online news also helps.
Aeroplan is “capitalizing on someone’s grief” by charging a fee to transfer points from a deceased member’s account, says the family member of a woman who died leaving 250,000 Aeroplan points behind.
“It seemed so callous. It seemed really insensitive. And it seemed really unnecessary,” says Kathryn Kwasnica of Victoria after finding out how much it would cost to transfer to her father the 250,000 points accumulated by her late stepmother.
But Aeroplan says it also offers a second option that allows users to avoid paying that cent per point charge altogether.
And even though the fees can be significant and travel booking potentially restrictive, compared with some other loyalty programs, Aeroplan has one of the better policies for dealing with points in the account of someone who has died.
Kwasnica’s stepmother, Linda, started feeling ill about a year ago, but it wasn’t until last summer that she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer.
“Six months later she was dead,” says Kwasnica. Linda was 68 when she died on Jan. 7.
Kwasnica, acting on behalf of her grieving father, husband, called Aeroplan to find out what to do about Stewart’s Aeroplan points.
She says she was told, in the event one of its members dies, Aeroplan charges a fee of $30 plus one cent per point to transfer the balance to a surviving family member. In Kwasnica’s case, because her stepmother had about 250,000 points, the fee would have amounted to about $2,530.
“That seemed crazy for a data transfer,” says Kwasnica.
Aeroplan defends itself
“My father passed away a year ago, so I completely empathize with members who are going through what they’re going through,” says John Boynton, Aeroplan’s chief marketing officer.
“But we are always trying to balance shareholders and members, so there are certain costs that we have to recuperate.”
For a flat $30 fee, Aeroplan also offers the option to transfer those points to a newly created estate account, which can be used by surviving family members. But Kwasnica says she was told by the person she contacted at Aeroplan that the points in the estate account must be used in their entirety within one year.
Many Aeroplan trips need to be booked at least a year in advance, and Kwasnica understood that to mean her father would have had to make travel reservations practically while planning his wife’s funeral.
“Who wants to travel right after the love of their life dies and you’ve had the worst year of your life?”
But Boynton says that’s not actually the case.
“A year is how much [time] you have to do something with them. But you can also book an Air Canada ticket up to a year in advance too, so that’s two years. And if that’s too soon for you, you can also buy an Air Canada gift certificate, which doesn’t have an expiry, or a retail gift certificate as well.”
However, redeeming Aeroplan points for a gift certificate does not always offer the best value compared with, for example, redeeming those points for an international flight in business class.
Patrick Sojka of the website Rewards Canada says transferring points is not a large expense for a loyalty program.
“Honestly, [the fee], it’s money-making,” he says.
“Ninety per cent of all programs worldwide charge you a fee to transfer points and miles to somebody else [in the event a member dies].”
In Sojka’s view, the fee is about maximizing revenue. “The fact [is] that the miles on those accounts are a liability. The sooner they can get them off the books, the better,” he says.
High cost of dying
Compared with Aeroplan, other loyalty programs have terms and conditions surrounding death that are less favourable.
According to the terms and conditions for Shoppers Drug Mart’s popular Optimum points program, “Upon the death of a Shoppers Optimum Member, the member’s account will be closed and any Shoppers Optimum Points in the account will be forfeited.”
Better not to tell?
But there may be ways around this.
In March 2013, Delta Airlines changed its policy, declaring SkyMiles would no longer be transferable upon death.
As a result, travel writers, bloggers, and travel hackers started advising SkyMiles members not to notify the program of a death.
“It’s a grey area. But you don’t let the program know that that person’s passed away,” says Sojka, who also advises this.
“What you do is ensure that everybody has your log-in and passwords and then you can use those miles. Because when you book rewards flights, they don’t have to be booked for yourself, they can be booked for anybody, essentially. You can go in and book points for yourself, your family members, you name it, using those points.”
It’s not clear if companies will crack down on this apparent loophole, but Sojka says he hasn’t heard of any repercussions from taking this route.
Now that they know about it, Kathryn Kwasnica says her family will probably go with the gift certificate option for her stepmother’s Aeroplan points.
“I think my dad would probably be into that. Because I think for him, the thought of travelling right now is just disturbing.”
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