Who owns a person’s digital and online data when they die?

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Apple recently made national news following their misunderstanding of an estate related query from one of their customers in the UK.

A son inherited his mother’s iPad device and he appealed to the manufacturer to help him unlock it.  The company asked for a series of legal steps to be undertaken and documents to be provided with the request as their concern was to protect the account information, data and content of the original owner.

When the company realised that the son only wanted to use the device and for it to be returned to its factory settings, that is to say, wiped clean of its previous owner’s accounts, data and history, it duly complied and fulfilled the request.

This news story highlighted that online data and accounts do not automatically have the same status as we associate with traditional or fixed assets that form part of an estate. In this case, while the iPad as a device was seen as transferable from person to person, the data and software contained within it was not and may not have been, even if wishes regarding it had been explicitly outlined in a will.

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning. There was a hoax story a while ago in which Bruce Willis was suing Apple because he wouldn’t be able to pass his extensive iTunes collection on to his children when he died. The story was bogus but as Paul Gordon, Associate for Finlaysons, a national law firm in Australia points out, the issue is real.

“Often when you ‘buy’ music online what you are actually acquiring is a licence to listen to it, rather than buying the song itself,” Gordon points out. “That licence may come with restrictions and may not be passed onto your next of kin when you die (i.e. a ‘personal’ contract). These issues aren’t going to go away and I’m sure will come before the courts in the coming years.”

In a previous post, I’ve mentioned how people who have lost relatives or friends often have a drive to find out more about them, including their digital lives. While this latest case with Apple made headlines, it’s not an uncommon event. Digital providers will not just hand over access to personal data or information of the deceased unless there’s a legal requirement to do so as their position is to defend the privacy of the account holder, in death as in life.

Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer of the MurdockCheng Legal Practice based in Sydney suggests that when writing up a will, individuals remove any ambiguity about how they want their digital information dealt with upon their death.

“I always recommend my clients to have a list of all bank accounts, passwords, PIN numbers and so forth with respect to financial institutions,” Murdock says.

“The same should apply for digital accounts. Next time you see a lawyer to update your Will, you should ask that lawyer to help you include your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. They can also work with you to provide for all intellectual property rights contained in each asset to be transferred to the respective beneficiary. Lastly, you can waive your rights to privacy so your Executor can gain access to your accounts and deal with them in accordance with your wishes (if this is what you really want).”

Gordon concurs and doesn’t anticipate changes in legislation to digital and online asset ownership anytime soon.

“In the US, several states have passed laws which deal with access to social media accounts, allowing the executor to take control after death. This is slowly creeping across the States but is yet to appear in Australia.”

He agrees that it is important to consider what will happen after you die and make sure it is well documented, ideally in a will, but also known amongst family members.

“Like a lot of these things, people often put them off as it means facing up to their own mortality. But it is important to do to save your loved ones from having to go through difficult and complex legal processes to get access to your online assets.”

Change to memorialisation + “Look Back” videos for Facebook deceased

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Facebook made an announcement last week which shows that it has been giving some thought to how the social networking platform can best help people remember and celebrate their loved ones.

The first change they’ve introduced is that the Facebook memorialisation feature (what is memorialisation?) will continue to keep the account holder’s visibility features set as they were before the person died. Previously, only people set as ‘friends’ were able to see and interact with their page. So if a person decides that ‘friends’ and ‘friends of friends’ are able to their wall whilst living, these same groups of people will be able to see that person’s account after they have died.

Also… remember the Look Back video that has being doing the rounds on Facebook? This is the personalised video feature that shows users’ top content moments over the past ten years, launched to coincide with Facebook’s ten year anniversary. After one father’s appeal to Facebook for a Look Back video for his son who died in 2012, Facebook have made a request process available for others who have deceased friends and would like to view a Look Back video for them.  To apply and see a Look Back video for a deceased friend, the account must be memorialised and the requester must have ‘friend’ status. The requester will be sent a private link which cannot be shared.

Facebook have placed emphasis on the privacy of account holders and honouring this in life and in death. The company has also alluded to additional changes in upcoming months so that people can better establish how they want to be remembered on Facebook and what they want to leave behind for others. I’m hoping that they are considering a living will arrangement in the same way Google has set up its Google Inactive Manager.

How to hide Facebook account activity of friends who have died

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It’s common to hear people mentioning that they find it difficult when they continue to see the presence of their deceased friends on Facebook – on friend lists, by tagged activity others in a shared community have posted, or via automated suggestions in news feeds.

No mainstream social network currently allows people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones, although there are some features that users can take advantage of to manage a friend or connection’s activity. Relatives and next of kin of those who have died have the option of closing their accounts or – in the case of Facebook – continuing the account but memorialising it.

Often, these same relatives are unaware that memorialisation options exist but even if they activate this process, they have no control over Facebook settings, such as those for privacy or notifications.

For people who are uncomfortable seeing profiles or activity of deceased friends on their Facebook account but who do not want to ‘unfriend’ them, here are some suggestions to minimise these kind of reminders.

Hide a Facebook friend’s news feed. If you have a friend who has died and you don’t wish to see updates in your news feed relating to them – either when people post on their wall, or when updates are posted by someone who has password access to their account – you can change your settings to avoid these. Or, if you don’t want to hide all activity, you can specifically outline what type of activity you would like to see appearing on your news feed.

Hide Facebook Page updates. You may also follow a Facebook page set up to commemorate someone but may not want to hear news from family and friends when updates are posted but instead prefer to check in from time to time. To stop seeing these updates, go to the page you no longer want to see updates from, and at the top right hand corner of the page, there’s a notifications button. Set this notifications button to “off”. This same process works for friends, people or pages that you follow.

Manage several accounts at once by creating a Facebook list. If you have a group of friends that you want to manage in the same way in one location, you can create a list to control what information and status updates you see. Once you create a list, you can select or uncheck the options that show up in your newsfeed by going to ‘manage list’ > ‘update status types’.

Here’s a good all round article on managing friends and doing a general news feed spring clean. As ever, do post any additional tips, comments or suggestions below.

Separating the living from the dead on Facebook

In a previous post, I looked into how we group our friends on a day to day basis depending on interests, ideology, personality and our relationship to them. This doesn’t occur to the same degree in our online communities, because it’s more convenient not to and platforms are not yet designed to accommodate nuances in our social graph.

In real life, we also compartmentalise the ways in which we honour our dead.

Recently I attended a school reunion. This is the sort of event that I would ordinarily avoid, but it was a special occasion. My brother and I were both pupils at the same school for many years. Following the news of his death, they elected to hold a chapel service and unveil a memorial plaque in his name at their annual old boys and old girls day.

The service was deferential and took place in the darkened, quiet, solemn environment of the chapel. Prayers were offered, sympathies and reminisces were shared. And then… the congregation headed outside to the lawns where the sun was conveniently shining, to mingle and sip on Pimms while consuming delicious indulgent treats such as strawberries with cream and chocolate cake.

Shrines, graves, areas of worship, significant landmarks provide havens for reflection and commemoration. As a society, we assign times when a community unites to remember thofacebook-memorialization-afterlife-digitalse who have died. Through events, rituals and designated locations, we have times to mourn or reflect and times to live in the present.

Yet our online lives do not reflect this reality and I suspect this is why some people find it difficult when they continue to see a ghostly presence of their deceased friends on social media – on their friends list, tagged post-mortem activity, or automated suggestions in their newsfeeds.

None of the mainstream social networks allow people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones. Relatives of those who have died might have the option of closing their accounts or (in the case of Facebook) continuing the account but memorialising it. Of course, few people are likely to be aware that memorialisation options even exist, and if they do, the options are fairly black and white.

These limited options do not do justice to the memory of those who have passed away. Nor do they assist our need for ritual to remember them. Personally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for social media platforms to develop separate community spaces designed specifically to commemorate those who have died, where the network connections of the deceased can reflect on past memories together.

Doing this would enable this type of memorial activity to be separate to other day to day social communication with still living connections, connections who may otherwise have no association with those being remembered.

Birthdays, important dates or events in the deceased’s history could be marked in a separate, sincere and respectful environment, fostering a quality of discussion that is more personal and relevant to those who were part of their life. It would  help to ameliorate the awkwardness that death often evokes in other day to day conversations with the living.

Lastly, by introducing separate commemoration areas on social networks, we would publicly acknowledge a person’s death on these relatively new platforms. In a previous age – and today still – a person’s passing was published in a newspaper or community annals to record that person’s existence and history in records.

Currently, anyone who didn’t know of my brother’s death would have no way of knowing via his social existence. He doesn’t show up in Facebook search given his account is memorialised. This is surely restricting the opportunity for greater engagement in the future, when members from extended communities want to reminisce or pass on messages of condolence. In an age when individuals are connecting and searching for connections online, this type of status omission will become more striking by its absence, over time.

How to give someone access to your Google email and data; manage your digital afterlife

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Google Inactive Manager is a recent introduction by Google to allow account holders to share their email and data with a nominated next of kin or friends after they have died or have stopped using Google services. A previous post looks at the pros and cons of using Google Inactive Manager and why you might want to do so. Here’s a step by step guide to help you this up this function…

Setting up Google Inactive Manager

Go to your Google homepage, click on your profile or avatar picture at the top right hand side of the page and select ‘Account’ after your name. You’ll need to be logged in to set up this feature.

Once in your ‘Account’ page, select the ‘Data tools’ option at the top of the page and then click on ‘Set up Inactive Google Manager’.

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You’ll be presented with the Google Inactive Manager dashboard. Click on ‘Set up’ to get started.

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First you’ll need to provide a mobile phone number. Click on the ‘Add mobile phone number’. The system is intuitive so it doesn’t matter if you type in a zero after the country code or leave spaces between numbers.

Once done, hit the ‘Send verification code’ button – it should send a code to your phone via SMS which consists of a series of numbers or letters and numbers. Add to the ‘Verify number’ box which appears and click ‘Confirm’.

You can also add another email address to receive updates or alerts at this point.

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Once you’ve provided your contact details, select a timeout period on the Google Inactive Manager homepage. This means the length of time that you leave your Google account inactive, i.e. the period during which you do not log into Google for email, search, Google+, Drive or any of the Google tools. The minimum period is 3 months, the maximum period is 18 months. Think of the feature you most commonly use on Google and base a time period around that.

Remember though, Google only knows that you’ve used your account if you have logged into your account. If you use Google search everyday but are not signed in then you check your email every six months which you have to sign in for, Google will register the six month email activity on your account but not the search.

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Next, select ‘Add trusted contact’. You can nominate up to 10 contacts who will have three months to download your data once the account is inactive. Here’s where you can enter the email details of the person(s) you nominate to receive your data. Check the ‘Share my data with this contact option’ to ensure that they are able to receive the data later. If there is someone that you don’t want to have access to your email or other Google data but would like to send them a message, you can add a note for them at this point which the recipient will receive when the timeout period has finished.

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Select the Google data that you would like your nominated person(s) to download. As well as making sure your contact details are correct, you’ll need to verify the correct phone number for your nominated contact(s). You’ll also need to update your contact’s mobile phone if this changes over time so that they will be able to access your account once it has become inactive. You can pick and choose what your nominated contact(s) will be able to download and access.

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After hitting the ‘Next’ button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can leave a message for the person you’ve nominated to receive your Google data. While setting up Google Inactive Manager is practical, the message doesn’t have to be. It’s a good opportunity to leave a thoughtful message behind for someone who is grieving. What would they want to hear? Anything you want them to know? What you say could make a difference to them.

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Google Inactive Manager also allows you to set up an auto-response to incoming email once your Google account has become inactive.

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Lastly, you decide what happens to your Google account once your outlined actions have been completed. Would you like the account to be deleted? Google Inactive Manager includes this option which will also remove any public comments/data you have, for instance on YouTube or Google+.

opt_delete_google_account_digitalafterlife_deathOnce you’ve hit ‘Enable’, your Google settings are confirmed. Remember, you are able to update your settings at any point. Visit this earlier post on things to consider when setting up Google Inactive Manager.

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