Benjamin Stassen, like most young adults in their early 20s, had a FaceBook account and many others that he used online. As with all social media websites and websites in general Benjamin has usernames and passwords that kept others from accessing his accounts. Like everyone else, every time he used FaceBook (and other sites) he had to ‘sign-in’ in order to get into his account, and into his online life.
When Benjamin Stassen suddenly committed suicide in 2010 his distraught parents, hoping to gain some insight into why their beloved son had taken his own life, looked to his FaceBook and other social accounts for answers. They needed access to what is termed his ‘digital legacy’. What they got instead was a wall, unknowingly put up by Benjamin himself and guarded by ‘user agreements’, that made it extremely difficult to do that. In fact, it was almost impossible and has set off a debate about what constitutes ‘privacy’ after a loved one is deceased.
The Stassens eventually persuaded Google to give them access to their son’s email (through a court order) and FaceBook, grudgingly, followed suit but the problems they faced, and the concerns that their fight brought up, have shed light on an area of the internet that is still legally murky; who should get access to someone’s digital legacy in the event of their death and how can this be made legally possible?
It’s an important question to be sure. Many people have digital legacies that are quite extensive and even quite valuable. For example, what if a person has digital music that they have purchased and stored online in the cloud? Who has the right to this, and how does that person access it? Information, like that the Stassen’s were looking for, is the same and in some instances may be very important.
In the United Kingdom a study termed ‘Dying in a Digital Age’ found that although 4 out of 5 people have digital assets less than 10% of them have given any thought to how they will pass on these assets after they themselves pass on. Bank accounts, ISAs and online collections of digital art and music all have username and password protection but still very little in the way of protection for surviving family members.
The debate has just started and will get much more heated as more and more people pas that have digital legacies and no digital ‘last will and testament’ to say who gets access. Hopefully someday, when a solution is found, the light that was shed on this problem will have meant that Benjamin Stassen’s death was not completely in vain.