The Digital Afterlife

The Digital Afterlife

The Digital Afterlife


When British singing sensation Amy Winehouse recently passed away, distraught fans flocked onto her Twitter account to see what had been her last thoughts and conversations with friends. Her relatives must surely have been faced with the difficult decision, and possible complex legal issues of what to do with her now inactive account. Should they leave it open for fans, or would they prefer to hide it away, to protect their privacy as they mourn?

Today, almost everybody in the western world has a Facebook profile, a blog, an online photo album or some connection to the digital world, so what happens to all of these when we die? Previously, we had to worry about whom gained only our physical assets: property, money and possessions, but now we have digital assets to worry about too. The owner of a blog or profile may not want certain items to be accessed even by a close relative, yet often it is this relative who wishes to keep those same precious photographs, those spirited status updates… In this case, should the relative be granted free access, with or without the permission of the deceased, and what about the websites involved? Can they allow any relative to access a private profile?

Many websites have their own terms and conditions on the above. Certain websites such as a blogs, allow the owner to retain all the rights to his or her content, and can change or remove it at will. Other sites, such as photo-sharers (Shutterfly, Flickr etc) grant ownership of all photographs and content uploaded, however, the site has a non-exclusive right to use any of this content. Some websites simply close down an account, and access can only be granted with a court order. Others automatically close down websites that have been inactive for 6 months or longer, whether in the case of the deceased or otherwise.

So, what action can be taken by you to ensure your memories, and of course, your data protection, are kept alive and safe? Can you decide who will be in charge of your digital assets: who has your details, email accounts and passwords? Yes, you can. Currently there are very few estate laws for digital assets, and of course, these laws all depend on the individual terms of the websites involved. However, there are a number of emerging websites, built specifically for these purposes. In a secure account, one beneficiary is designated by the user to an online ‘will’, who will be left in charge of all private information; ID Cards, passwords, user Ids and more. You can decide what content can be removed from the web in the case of your passing: what can be made public in a memorial profile. Facebook has already implemented this feature, encouraging for the sharing of support groups, and the remembrance of a friend or family member through an eternal online profile. When somebody leaves us, at least, they do not leave our social network.


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