Who owns your digital history in a future far, far away?

digital_data_digital_afterlife_digital_historyI’ve been speaking with a variety of researchers on the legal aspects around our digital accounts and what happens to them after we die. Often the discussion focuses on who is entitled to access a deceased person’s online account data – such as email, photos or documents – and the consensus is that it’s complicated.

Some platforms such as Google have started to allow users to nominate next of kin, family or friends to receive their personal information once their account becomes inactive. With the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act approved in the US (July 2014), we may see a system where a personal representative of a deceased person’s estate has as much right to manage the digital assets of the deceased in the same way they would their tangible assets. Currently ownership of digital assets often remain with online services such as Facebook and Yahoo unless contested through the legal system by a next of kin.

While laws are catching up with digital and social technologies, Damian McCallig, a PhD candidate from the School of Law at National University of Ireland in Galway is curious to know what will happen to our data a generation or more after we die.

As he points out, current copyright laws in countries like the UK and Australia allow someone’s personal information to become available in the public domain several years after that individual has died. Records around births, deaths and marriages are accessible by researchers or family members interested in their genealogy or a previous generation’s history. Unpublished works such as diaries or letters can be published without the permission of their estate, as long as a certain period of time has passed since the author died. In the UK, this is seventy years, although there are specific exemptions.

“Currently a lot of today’s information that is relevant for the researchers and historians of the future is behind walls and owned by companies,” says McCallig. “For instance, Barack Obama has a Twitter account which will hold public tweets but also private messages which are gated. This information will be relevant from a historical and research point of view. Previously these kinds of notes would have become available after a set period of time. What copyright laws apply to this digital data managed by private organisations?”

McCallig believes that Facebook would have been alerted to the opportunity around its memorialised accounts (what is Facebook memorialisation?) when a father campaigned for a ‘look back’ video to be made for his son who died in 2012, attracting widespread support. He wonders if Facebook is assessing the commercial potential for its deceased accounts in the long term. Facebook’s main revenue stream comes from advertising, based on driving eyeballs to ad creative and sponsored posts. Memorialised Facebook accounts offer no value to marketers or monetisation options for the company in its current model.

While he’s not certain on how Facebook would commercialise these accounts, likely scenarios could include charging researchers, educational institutions, public information bodies and even individuals for access to archival information.

“Facebook is able to provide insights on how communities reacted to news and events within specific contexts or a particular point in time. It can detail emotional responses as well as online behaviour across timelines and networks,” says McCallig. “That’s of tremendous value to future historians.”

If this is the case, should these historical insights and archives be available freely to the public or remain in the hands of commercial companies? And if Facebook fails to survive, should there be a contingency plan to protect and share our histories with future generations?

What do you think?

Read more about Damian McCallig’s perspectives on Digital Remains or connect with him on Twitter.

 

 

Planning messages from the beyond

Including messages as part of estate planning for next of kin and/or other family and friends can provide tremendous comfort for those mourning the loss of someone they love. It’s important however that these personal messages are not executed casually.

Leaving behind a carelessly written note or one that has been recorded in haste can result in emotional fall out for relatives or friends already dealing with loss. It can also have legal ramifications for how the estate is later administered, leaving a will vulnerable to contestation which in turn results in considerable delays and potential costs for named beneficiaries.

This two-part feature will cover the offline and digital options in planning post mortem communications as well as considerations to avoid legal pitfalls.

What digital services exist to incorporate message giving as part of estate planning?

With the emergence and increasing reliance on the internet and digital services, it’s not surprising that there are many new online offerings catering for the digital afterlife.

There are several which help users do an audit of and manage their digital accounts and many of these already offer additional service components which enable someone to add personal messages for their next of kin or intended estate recipients.

Fred Schebesta, co-founder of finder.com.au, an online financial services comparison website points out that the choice of online apps and services is wide ranging.

“Facebook apps like IfIDie.net allow you to leave a personal message on your Facebook if you were to die. When signing up for the app you designate three participating friends who will let the app know when you pass away, which then prompts it to release your pre-recorded message,” says Schebesta. “There’s even a startup called Eterni.me that’s developing a service where you can create an online avatar that your loved ones can interact with.”

New services such as Eterniam provide access to digital assets to next of kin, family or friends as designated by the account owner. Parvez Anandam CEO for Eterniam says, “these digital assets can be photos, videos and important documents including both important legal ones as well as deeply personal ones such as letters to loved ones.”

Another recent digital afterlife start up, Passing Bye, offers users the option of assigning private messages and journal sharing to their nominated kin. With the Last Private Message feature, account holders can convey thoughts and notes that are sent to recipients as simple written messages. If a member is looking to include more, they can set up a journal entry or series of entries that can include photos and videos with text.

All these digital services will work using a fee structure, generally requiring an account holder to pay monthly or annual tariffs although in some cases they may include an option for the user to pay a one time lifetime fee.

For someone doesn’t want to pay for a service, the Facebook afterlife app ifIdie.net and many of these aforementioned companies also offer basic free services to accompany their premium offerings. They are often provided as a sample to entice subscribers to upgrade.

Another option for regular or avid Google users is Google Inactive Manager, a free service for account holders. Its objective is to encourage users to plan what happens to their Google data after death and includes a private written message option as part of the nomination or destroy process. This feature is available even if the user decides that all data is to be destroyed by the service provider. The downside to using this service is that Google will send messages and follow afterlife instructions only after a timeframe of at least three months. As a result, Google Inactive Manager will not be of benefit for messages that are time sensitive or include information that next of kin require immediately. How to sign up to Google Inactive Manager.

Important legal and practical considerations

digital_afterlife_estate_planning_messages

Credit: Shho

 

As I’ve previously emphasised, it’s very important with any digital offering supporting your estate management efforts, that you understand their terms and conditions. This article gives a good summary on things to consider when signing up to a digital afterlife service but some questions to ask and think about when doing your assessment include:

 

  • How are they managing your data and what are your privacy or legal rights?
  • Under what conditions will the provider share your data with third parties?
  • What will happen to your information if the service expires before you do? Will they make good on delivering your messages or refund your membership fee if they fail to action?
  • How do nominated next of kin, friends and family receive instructions after your death? Does it suit your online lifestyle?

With courts recognising informal documents such as notes, emails, letters, video as having legal standing, another key aspect to think about carefully is what to include in post-mortem messages intended for next of kin, family or friends. Even if your intent is good, by leaving a personal message you may raise a recipient’s expectations or sense of entitlement relating to an inheritance and risk the potential of your estate instructions being questioned after death.

Darryl Browne, Solicitor at Browne-Linkenbagh explains that there has been a 60 per cent increase in claims over the last decade in Australia largely initiated by people who have been acknowledged within informal documentation by a deceased party which has later been used to contest the deceased person’s will.

“When you make declarations that are wrong, that overly inflate a person’s worth to you or are inflammatory when recording last wishes, it can be counterproductive,” says Browne. “If a will is contested, claims will take two or more years to be resolved and can have significant emotional, legal and financial implications for the intended beneficiaries of your estate.”

Kay Lam-McLeod, IT Lawyer from IdeaLaw agrees. “Remember that if your will is challenged, the estate will get hit with legal fees and it holds up distribution. So the people you want to leave your inheritance to are the ones who will suffer as a result.”

NEXT: What to think about when planning digital and offline post-mortem messages to avoid legal complications for beneficiaries.

If a will is drafted on a mobile phone, is it valid?

digital afterlife or legacy on phone

Credit: Michal Zacharzewski, SXC

According to this recent blog post by IdeaLaw, the answer is “yes, it can be!” There has been a case in Queensland already in which the court ruled that a will drafted on an iPhone was valid.

Three elements need to be satisfied for a court to find an informal will valid.

1) That it is a document
2) That the document states the deceased’s intentions for their estate after their death
3) That the deceased intended the document to be a will

Which leads to an important question.

Are there or could there be wills drafted on social networking sites or within an email inbox that could be declared valid in the future?

IdeaLaw proposes that this could be so if these above elements can be demonstrated. Read their blog post for a legal perspective on the Queensland example and potential consequences in layman’s terms.

Three important reasons to plan and organize your digital afterlife

Emily Baxter from www.awayforabit.com offers her views on why it’s important to plan a digital estate as part of a featured post on PassingBye. Read the full feature on PassingBye…

We spend a lot of time online. If recent reports are to be believed, Australians spend close to one day a week online while the Brits are estimated to spend one day every fortnight on the same activity. In the US, it is thought that the average user spends closer to two days per week either on mobile or digital media.

Which ever way you look at it, that’s a lot of time spent online which is spent communicating with others on social, commenting online, banking, shopping…. Then there’s the plethora of accounts and communities that a user signs up for. For instance, people on average have at least two email accounts and depending on the research you read, about twenty five apps that they have downloaded onto their phones. That is a significant number of companies and communities that individuals are engaging with.

Given the general trends of more time spent in the digital universe, it’s worth thinking about the footprint you will leave behind when the time comes. Here are three important reasons to consider planning and organising your digital afterlife.

Ownership of digital assets are not automatically transferable to next of kin

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning as a recent news story with Apple highlighted. 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.”

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.

It’s also recommended that you identify a system for storing sensitive information confidentially that can be passed on to next of kin. There are many options for doing this, involving legal representation, an online service or both.

Digital memories don’t last forever

It’s important to plan to capture memories and conversations as part of digital legacy and estate planning. Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

Recently I wrote about how I’ve changed email accounts from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use – in the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, when trying to look back at past conversations, some of these accounts are now lost or no longer accessible which means that a large swath of my history is lost, not only to myself but to anyone who I might have passed a curated version to.

Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to have a way of archiving conversations as they happen. While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent experience has highlighted the value of a system to continually capture personal messages and notes.

Digital gives you the opportunity to shape your legacy

The explosion of digital services means that there’s a wealth of opportunity for every person to shape their legacy and the way that they would like to be remembered. For instance, services offering the ability to leave personal messages for next of kin to communicate last wishes or words of comfort, can provide tremendous support. It’s a reminder that they were loved.

At the same time, people often have an insatiable desire to find out more about loved ones who have died, even if they believe they know them well in the first place. It’s common to hear stories of mourners piecing together strands of a life story in the same way they would a jigsaw puzzle by looking through old photos or having conversations with friends or family of the person who has died.

A digital afterlife plan which includes memories and mementos, photos or correspondence can help next of kin, family and close friends to remember the good times and provide support in what will likely be a tough, emotional time.

***

This feature was originally posted on PassingBye.

Messages from Beyond

Digital afterlife messages from beyond

Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography

I love reading through and reminding myself of the messages received from DBS after he died. When I say that, I don’t mean ‘other realm’ kind of messages delivered by a psychic or similar. Instead, I’m referring to handwritten notes or cards written by him and addressed to me which I received after his death.

They provided tremendous comfort and still do. Which has made me think about how I should leave messages to friends and family for when my time comes. It’s not an easy thing to think about but if you’re making a digital will that addresses practical items such as password transfer to next of kin or instructions on what to do with your digital information, including a personal message with this information may be a logical next step.

 

Messages from DBS

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that my brother preferred committing thoughts down by pen and paper as opposed to using email or social. We weren’t reliable communicators but despite this, I received multiple messages from him over a period of several weeks after he died.

The first message I received from DBS was two days after his death. Sitting in my mailbox, was a postcard that had been sent several weeks previously but took its time to arrive because he’d sent it from a very remote overseas location. Later there was the card he’d scrawled to me in Afghanistan but that he hadn’t had a chance to send which came back with his personal effects.

Months later when sorting through his papers at home, I came across his ‘unofficial’ will, a piece of dated A4 paper in his beautiful, black ink writing stating his intention for his estate. While mostly formal in nature, he’d included a personal message to me. I was touched and moved for days afterwards.

Finally, his diary revealed what I hadn’t been able to discover from Google because of their stance they took (at that time) of not sharing an account holder’s data with next of kin without going through legal proceedings. When DBS died, one of the first things I wanted to know at the time and eventually obsessed about, was whether or not he had read my emails that I’d sent to him while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Somehow, not knowing if he had received them meant that they started to represent something more significant for me; whether or not he knew that he was in my thoughts and that I loved him.

When I eventually brought myself to read his diary months later, I saw an entry dated 21 October that opened with…. ”Today, I received another lovely email from Emily….”

Words cannot describe how I felt at that time. It seemed as though I had received a personal answer from him to the question that had hounded me for a significant period of time.

Learn how to transition your email and personal data to next of kin using Google Inactive Manager.

Things to consider when working with digital services offering to send messages to loved ones

DBS hadn’t planned the way in which I received messages from him after he died with the exception of his handwritten will. I feel fortunate though that I received them and the emotional benefits are unquantifiable. On each occasion, his notes gave me a real sense of happiness and I almost felt as if he was visiting me in some way. I still glow when I think about them and value these mementos.

For anyone considering estate planning, I’d recommend including this kind of personal touch for friends and family for conveying love and providing comfort.

Given my own experience, I’m a fan of planning with handwritten notes however, there are now a wealth of digital services that you can work with to leave messages for loved ones with. A note of caution though. If you plan to go digital, check with the company to check their stability and financial status. A few companies I’ve researched from 2007 have been acquired or simply shut up shop, such can be the fleeting, temporary nature of digital. Also beware of the organisations that don’t have a long term vision or plan for their business. You want to be confident when signing up to a service that it will comfortably outlive you and honour your wishes in the future.

In all dealings with companies assisting you with digital afterlife services, I’d suggest researching with the following questions in mind:

  • How long is their commitment to providing digital services? Are they thinking day-to-day terms or over fifty years, hundred years?
  • What is their financial status?
  • What will happen to customers’ planning services in the event that they fold/are acquired?
  • Where how/will they share your final message? If it’s via a third party social networking platform, what happens to your message if the platform no longer exists?

It’s a new digital realm so it’s wise to do your background research. And spend some time understanding terms and conditions, particularly around what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you from a legal perspective and on what basis the company will share private data.

If you’re not confident about a digital service, do your own video recording and give it to your solicitor or a close family member or friend to look after while attending to your estate planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Based on my own experience, a simple handwritten note placed somewhere safely or with someone can make all the difference to those left behind.

NEXT ON THIS: DIGITAL AFTERLIFE MESSAGE SERVICES

How to record a voice mail message from a mobile phone

I received this note recently…

My sister died two months ago and her husband is looking into the various tasks which relate to her estate and closing her accounts. He is considering closing down her mobile phone account, something that I’ve been reluctant to entertain because we spent a lot of time talking on the phone (we used to speak daily). I miss her voice so much and I like to phone and listen to her voice mail message which will disappear when the account is cancelled. Any suggestions on how I can record and keep this message? Is this something that the mobile operator can do for me? I’m not particularly tech savvy.” S.A., NSW.

It’s very tough to close down accounts in this type of situation because the act itself is so final. Another reminder that someone’s time with us is over. My heart goes out to anyone going through this process.

When it comes to voice mail, there are many options for recording a message, ranging from ‘do-it-yourself’ options through to outsourcing the task to companies who will do the job for you.

Speaking to various businesses, I asked what they did when they needed to capture high quality recordings in a relatively straightforward way.

Simon Crunden, Director of TravelProcure, a company providing travel management consultancy to government, academia and corporates suggested using Pamela Skype (www.pamela.biz).

To use it, you simply download the app on your mobile or desktop, and make a call using your Skype account. When the call connects, you have the option to start to record the conversation using Pamela. When you finish the conversation, the call is automatically saved as an MP3 file into a folder on your computer.

He offers a word of caution for users planning or thinking of recording a conversation. Users need to be aware that before they record a conversation, they should seek the persons consent, as it may be illegal to do it in some jurisdictions.

Mark Rennie, Sales Director for Phonenomena, a company that service large mobile customers of Telstra in Australia told me that he experienced this type of request a number of years ago. At the time, the company had to use a sensitive microphone to make the recording from the phone’s speaker phone. Today though, it is much easier using other technologies.

Mark suggests using a Skype service such as Skype Call Recorder or if you have a mac, you can use the audio recording tools contained in Garage Band. He also recommends looking at solutions that are available via an apps search, for instance this call recorder app on iTunes. This example is a pay-per-call solution that calls over the internet to capture the message.

Finally, if you’d like to get someone else to do this for you, there are companies that will do this for a fee. Voicemailsforever.com is one such example, helping people to save their voice mails in an mp3 format.

Here’s wishing you the best of luck in capturing that voice mail message.

Got a question about managing a digital afterlife or estate issue? Drop a line to emily@awayforabit.com.

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