Privacy on the Internet After Death

As you browse the web and shop online, you leave behind traces. Companies have made lots of money collecting information about your web browsing habits, what ads you click on, what you buy, and selling that information. Companies like Amazon and Netflix use this information to provide you with a more personal experience. Others receive information from you voluntarily, such as Facebook or Google+. You may also store your files or backups in the cloud with services like DropBox or Google Drive. What happens to all of this information when you are dead?

Maria Perrone writes about this problem in the journal CommLaw Consepectus and how internet firms and digital service providers act as the gatekeepers. Some companies rely on a law from 1986 called the Stored Communications Act. They argue this law clearly prohibits many forms of data handover to heirs or estates, even with verified written instructions asking for the data to be released. The law provides no exemptions and includes heavy prison sentences.

Each company, however, maintains its own set of procedures usually included in the terms of service. Some require a legal executor's request, but others honor requests from anyone who can prove a family connection exists. Twitter says that it can deactivate an account on presentation of several pieces of information, but it is "unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased." Facebook limits valid parties to requesting the account be removed or turned into a memorial site. Many other companies have disparate policies: some delete accounts after a period of inactivity, others refuse to make any changes or deletions.

Some companies have acknowledged the problem and are beginning to offer solutions. In April, Google released its Inactive Account Manager, which allows users to set up a sort of digital will. It will send an email to a trusted contact if the account is inactive for a specified period. There is also an option to have the account deleted automatically. The trusted contact can then follow a procedure to gain access to the account. America's Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan group that creates model legislation that is adopted by many American states, has a "Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets" committee working on amendments to existing ULC laws that would give executors many of the same powers over digital assets that they have over financial and physical ones, while absolving service providers of any liability.