Much like pop music in the 60s, no one was quite sure how long this internet fad would last when it started. Now – as we live our most of our lives online – there are big questions to be asked. The biggest one is this:
What happens to all our digital data once we die?
It’s a hot topic for the last few months. I thought I would summarise the challenges and add some thoughts of my own.
The biggest question seems to be one of control. We leave behind a sea of digital data. We are told not to give out our passwords. But what happens to all this once we die. For those left behind, how do we access it?
Sadly – there is no one answer. The legal rights of estate executors versus the terms and conditions of social networking sites is a delicate fight. The law doesn’t side with either one, but it is sliding towards the side of the executors.
Recently, (link) Oklahoma passed a state law that gave an estate executor automatic control of the deceased’s digital accounts. But it is not that easy. Yahoo is very specific about their terms, and how you cannot transfer your account. If Yahoo was not an American company, the waters would murk further.
So just leaving it to your will may not be enough, from a legal standpoint. And there are other loopholes. Some technical (your will is public record, so leaving actual passwords in there, like bank ones, is a bad idea) and some cultural (leaving your estate to your children who may not be able to login to your accounts).
Evan Carroll and John Romano, authors of Your Digital Life (link) have lots more to say about this matter. They decry the lack of industry standard, and suggest you pick a “digital executor”. Someone who is digitally savvy and protect your legacy.
(Carroll also runs the Digital Beyond blog, that covers this issue http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com)
And what legacy is that? When you count them up, it’s a lot.
For most people, the obvious online profile you have is social media. Mainly Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and that lot. One step further is bloggers.
Then there’s User Generated sites. Flickr photos has been one that has been under contention. But there’s also YouTube.
Then services that are tied crucially to money. Your bank details are probably the most important. But there’s also Paypal. eBay. More. And various stores that take logins. Amazon. Music subscription services. iTunes login.
Games are another important one. Games like Warcraft and Second Life uses an invented currency with real life value. Although not based on money, equally crucial is any email accounts. Gmail. Hotmail. Yahoo Mail.
Then, there is simply the mark you make. Comments made on blog posts. Photos where you’ve been tagged. Music tastes submitted to Last.fm, or Apple Genius.
And there’s plenty more to go. Who owns all this data?
None of these services have a standard to do with death. Each treats security issues, and hence issues around accessing and transferring accounts, with varying seriousness. But with no standard to follow anyway, how can they come to a consensus?
(And what happens when we move beyond passwords? Are fingerprint scanners that far away?)
To try and counter this are the folks behind Digital Death Day (link). They are in their second year and have had two conferences so far and more to come. People from various walks of life are trying to get something done, and getting input from everywhere. They haven’t begun to work out a standard yet though. That is still very far away.
Beyond the rules of how things can be accessed – what should you do once you have access? How do you want to be remembered online? And how would you like to remember people you knew?
Beyond the lack of legal consensus – what is the cultural one? Is it weird for dead people to be on Facebook? Surely there’s a data issue as well. When Facebook touts it’s 500 million figure – are any of them dead?
And if we do get rid of someone’s facebook – what happens to their photos? Their comments? Their tagging? Is that not rewriting history?
And who owns it? If I put up a photo of you on my Facebook, is it mine – or yours? Do my executors have the right to decide what to do with my photos of you – ones that are tagged of you and on your profile?
Actually, Facebook is ahead of the game. They have a Memorialisation feature, which can be activated for people who have passed. It gets rid of things like contact information, but allows people to post messages. But no other service offers anything like it. I’ve not even heard of any other company looking into it.
And who said the internet was permanent anyway? In fact, far from it.
MySpace is falling apart. What happens when it falls apart completely? What happens to my profile? I’ve lost my old Geocities sites. Even URLs expire after a few years. Inactive Twitter profiles can be claimed. Some sites even clear out unused profiles after a while. How can you hold onto something that’s always moving?
If you were to freeze my digital life 5 years ago, it would look very different to my digital life now. What will it look like in 5 years time? And with even the devices we are using to view the web going through massive changes – will we leave any mark at all?
Maybe in a way that we don’t want. It maybe deleted from the web, but I’m sure I will always exist in Google’s database somewhere. That, for me, is even more worrying.
What will we leave behind? Everything? Anything?
Will my grandchildren be able to find my Last.fm profile, and see what my most listened-to artist for the week ending Feb 14th is Matthew Sweet? Will they even find this blog? What will they even do with that information?
What happens after we die? That questions seems to get bigger every day.
Digital Death Day – http://digitaldeathday.com/
Interview with the authors of “Your Digital Life” (http://www.npr.org/2011/01/10/132617124/after-death-protecting-your-digital-afterlife)
Evan Carroll’s blog – http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/
BBC article about the Facebook “Memorialisation” feature – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8691238.stm