Column: What happens (online) when we die?

Column: What happens (online) when we die?

A little over four years ago, my friend Tommy was in a car with a drunk driver and two other kids when it skidded out of a curvy road and rammed a pole about a mile away from my house. The other guys suffered only minor injuries, but the impact occurred on the back right door of the ’99 Nissan Sentra, where Tommy was sitting. He experienced irreparable head trauma and died in the hospital a few hours later. He was 17.

The way my hometown of Simsbury reacted was pretty interesting. Usually, we get the rap of being the basis for Eagleton in “Parks and Recreation” (i.e., rich and self-interested and anti-Amy Poehler), but everybody rallied around Tommy’s family to let them know they were loved and considered. It’s sad that tragedy is the catalyst for community outreach, but the results of sympathy, empathy and friendship were kind of beautiful.

How we express condolences and remember our loved ones is a little different now. Like everything else, it’s on the Internet, de-privatized for the world to see. People don’t necessarily have to go to the tombstone anymore. They can leave messages on the deceased’s social media profiles instead or in addition to. There are, to this day, Facebook statuses recalling memories with Tommy, with Tommy’s profile “tagged,” but Tommy is not there to receive the notification.

Something tells me Mark Zuckerburg never considered a social media afterlife, his own online cemetery. Quite frankly, it makes me a little squeamish. I always envisioned death as something more privately mourned.

Nevertheless, Facebook has its own “Memorial Mode” that allows relatives to take control of the deceased’s profile. Upon proof of death by someone who is in a clear position to act as an agent, Facebook will take down sensitive contact information like phone numbers and past statuses, and solely allow Facebook friends to post to their wall. Additionally, the site will add the word “Remembering” next to the name at the head of the profile.

However, nothing the deceased didn’t want shared while living is available to whoever gains access to their Facebook. There have been a handful of court cases with Facebook regarding teens who committed suicide and parents that sought more information, but were not allowed to obtain it under Facebook’s staunch privacy laws.

Facebook isn’t the only site seeking to help relatives (somewhat) connect with their loved ones posthumously. Gmail and Hotmail will allow families to order a disk of the deceased’s messages upon showing a death certificate and proof of power of attorney. Photography website Flickr is similar to Facebook in that an account will be forfeited to the family of the dead person, but anything considered private while the person was alive will not translate into accessible content afterward. And different sites such as Legacy Locker store an array of passwords to be utilized come death; each one has similar authority as the aforementioned sites.

Where it gets weirder is browsing The Digital Beyond, a site aggregating other webpages “designed to help you plan for your digital death and afterlife.” For instance, “Afternote” gives people the opportunity to “record your final wishes for your funeral and digital legacy,” essentially a digital will.

Most people are probably typing their wills on computers nowadays as it is, but what contributes to the eeriness of these places is how specialized they are, whereas sites like Facebook and Gmail are primarily utilities for the living with posthumous capacities. Above all, we have now reached a point in the digital age where we acknowledge and show legitimate concern for our material and digital lives alike.

The Internet is changing the way we shape our legacies. Our grandchildren will not refer to yearbooks, photo albums or home videos, but rather our Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams. This is but another installment in our ongoing engulfment by the screen, another nail in the coffin to our immaterial surrender.

Facebook to let users choose 'digital heirs' to look after their accounts when they die

Facebook to let users choose ‘digital heirs’ to look after their accounts when they die

Facebook will let its users decide what to do with its account when they die.

The new feature — a marked break in how the site deals with the accounts of those who have passed away — will allow users to appoint a “Facebook heir” who will look after the account and will be allowed to make certain changes. They will also be able to choose to have their account deleted entirely.

The heirs will be able to pin posts, respond to new friend requests and update profile pictures. But they will be restricted from other changes, including creating new posts or deleting photos.

Before, Facebook opted just to freeze members’ accounts when it learned that they had died. That meant that the page’s stayed online, but couldn’t be changed. If users don’t opt to leave a digital will, the company will freeze the profile in a process called “memorialization”, leaving everything with the privacy settings that were left when users died.

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The new feature is thought to be a response to family’s wishes to use Facebook profiles to remember their owners.

The option will be rolled out to users in the US on Thursday, with it expanding to different places after that.

Users will choose the heirs in Facebook’s security settings. Only one user can be chosen.

If users don’t choose a Facebook heir but name a digital heir in a normal will, Facebook will honour that choice.

It is an attempt to walk the line between protecting the privacy of the people who own profiles, and allowing grieving friends and families to access the site, as the Wall Street Journal notes. That is a balance that many other internet companies have to tread as they decide how to deal with the accounts and data of those users that have died.

Google introduced a similar system of “digital heirs” in 2013, allowing users to decide what will happen with users’ data after they pass away or become inactive for some time.

“We hope that this new feature will enable you to plan your digital afterlife–in a way that protects your privacy and security — and make life easier for your loved ones after you’re gone,” wrote Google product manager Andreas Tuerk in a blog post at the time.

Make a Plan for Your Digital Estate, Too

Make a Plan for Your Digital Estate, Too

With the recent integration of the digital world into daily life, the consideration of digital assets in estate planning is becoming increasingly important. Individuals are now leaving behind a multitude of digital content when they die, including information stored within social media profiles, emails, blogs, and media files, that can be passed on through a digital estate plan.

For those who spend time creating assets in the digital world, it is important to speak with estate trustees to ensure that it is known what digital assets exist and how they are to be managed after death. With estate planning, it is always a great idea to communicate wishes directly to estate trustees, and digital estate planning is no exception. Alternatively, active steps can be taken to organize digital assets and make arrangements for their transfer or destruction.

With Google’s new Inactive Account Manager, individuals with Google accounts can now control how their information will be dealt with after a prolonged period of inactivity. If a user does not log-in for the specified timeframe, of a minimum of three months, content can then be forwarded, with or without a customized message that may include instructions regarding the use of digital assets, or permanently deleted in accordance with the user’s wishes.

The Inactive Account Manager program, made available in April 2013, is an important development in digital estate planning for two primary reasons. First, it illustrates that digital assets are being taken seriously by the Internet technology industry in terms of after-life decisions. People are investing more and more time creating a body of work on the Internet, especially through social media profiles. The availability of this new Google feature indicates that digital assets, especially with respect to the younger generation, will be dealt with in a serious manner going forward.

Secondly, the program gets people thinking about estate planning in general. Digital assets are becoming a more important aspect of a person’s estate, and warrant serious consideration when it comes to estate planning. As with planning as it relates to other classes of assets, it is important that these assets can pass in a way that has affords a degree of dignity. Programs like the Inactive Account Manager serve as a reminder to get organized with an estate plan that incorporates how digital assets should be managed on death.

Without a digital estate plan, a number of problems can arise. Accounts left open long after death can make the deceased an easy target for identity theft, implicating other non-digital estate assets. Further, automatic online bill payments can continue following death and deplete the assets of the estate. Account information and contents are more obvious components of digital estates, but valuable digital assets and intellectual property, such as rights to domain names, may also be present and remain undiscovered during traditional estate administration absent a digital estate plan. Digital estate planning can allow access to the necessary documents to pass on these assets to the intended beneficiaries.

In addition to communication with your estate trustee regarding digital assets and using programs like Google’s Account Inactivity Manager,Legacy Locker, and Estate Map, steps can be taken during one’s lifetime to facilitate digital estate management. The creation of a complete list of online accounts and profiles with login information and, if necessary, the appointment of a separate “digital estate trustee” who is technologically capable, may prove helpful in the smooth management and transition of the digital aspects of an estate.

The distribution of certain assets after death, such as e-books and music files, is protected by user agreements. Sites like Google and Facebook may also own some of the information that we choose to share through these platforms. Absent state or provincial law stating otherwise, it is the service agreements with Internet companies that determine the rules for how our digital estates can be managed.

With the ongoing transformation of the digital world, the law relating to digital assets has fallen behind. This presents a significant challenge to digital estate planning. However, with a greater number of tools becoming available to facilitate the transfer of digital assets, digital estate planning is becoming both more relevant and accessible.

The dead can now pass on Bitcoin and Twitter followers in their will

The dead can now pass on Bitcoin and Twitter followers in their will

Vast areas of people’s lives are now lived out in the digital world. Social media profiles, financial accounts and professional and personal emails are now regarded as digital assets and they are closely protected in life by passwords and access codes. But these protective measures can become unwelcome obstacles when someone dies, leaving behind a complicated and confusing digital legacy.

Often relatives and friends don’t know how much their loved ones have locked up in their e-wallets and PayPal accounts. But the UK’s Planned Departure is now offering users a comprehensive way to organize and protect their digital legacy, allowing the recently deceased to pass on assets such as Bitcoin and Twitter followers.

Komal Joshi founded the startup after the death of her own father in 2010, when she encountered problems finding the passwords and secret answers for all his online accounts. Functioning similarly to a traditional will and testament, Planned Departure’s customers can rest assured that whoever is involved with administering their estate will be able to access every part of their digital existence — eliminating time and effort spent dealing with digital service companies, and the distress it can cause for bereaved loved ones.

Users can sign up for the service indefinitely for GBP 199.99 or pay an annual fee of GBP 19.99. They then list their assets and their wishes for each one. These can include digital inheritance from e-wallets, currencies such as Bitcoin and AirMiles, sentimental documents such as photographs, text files and digital libraries of eBooks or downloaded music. Users with popular social media accounts — a Twitter account with many followers for example — can even donate them to a designated charity, enabling them to exploit their marketing value for a good cause.

Are there other ways that digital services can make it easier to deal with the assets that the deceased leave behind?