Digital Artefacts and a Life of Bits

An interesting paper from a conference at NUIG at the weekend has made the Irish Times. Latest precedent suggests that legally the rights to your life online are to be included in your will. The article reports that Damien McCallig speaking at the ‘Privacy from Birth to Death and Beyond’ symposium suggested that it inevitable that the rights to accounts on Twitter, Facebook and similar social media will soon be subject of legal estates much like the shoebox of physical memories that loved ones have come to treasure. However, our digital artefacts are beginning to pose a new conundrum to the courts as they are caught up in the T&C and locked behind passwords.

14 thoughts on “Digital Artefacts and a Life of Bits”

  1. Facebook T&C’s

    For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

    When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).

    When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture).

    Apparently I’ve already signed away or agreed to lots things on Facebook. They are constantly changing the T&C and my continued usage is deemed as agreement to new T&C’s. I don’t know anybody who reads T&C of social media, I certainly didn’t until now. How physical laws will be enforced let alone agreed is beyond me. Let the buyer be aware.

    1. Kevin I agree. You can do all of this when you are living and breathing. However, when you die you don’t have the option of deleting your account or your facebook photos. This can only provided for in the form of a witnessed legally binding document. So if you have a will and wish your account to be deleted or retained after your gone, provide for it in your will. A depressing subject but its good that its come to light. I have some friends on FB who so tragically passed away and I think it would be nice for the family or the next of kin to have access to it when they pass away.

  2. I have noticed a small number of FB profiles recently where the person has passed away but posts are still been made on anniversaries, or special days, by the persons family and friends. My jury is still out on the idea, but obviously some people are embracing it so who am I to judge. It seems to be a new twist in social media.

  3. Certainly one we have not considered. We all now have a facebook, twitter, or even myspace page and this is an area few people have even thought of especially in terms of who has rights to your online content in the event of your death.

    Dead is the one certainty in life, the date not so certain, so should we be considering whether our cyber artifacts should be or could be left to loved ones.
    Flickr and youtube are prime examples of photos and videos online that are routinely stored and hoarded, and to which our relatives might like, should we shed this mortal coil.

    Now companies are starting up with this express intention. For an example Legacy Locker, founded by Jeremy Toeman, ( is an online company that provides
    a safe and convenient way to pass online account details onto relatives.

    When you create an account, with Legacy Locker, you assign a beneficiary who becomes the trustee of your online details in the event of your death.
    Legacy Locker have roughly about 10,000 people who have signed up for their services.

    Legacy Locker along with their rivals DataInherit and Entrustet sponsored Digital Death Day to highlight the issues regarding the implications of Digital Death which is the term they use.The purpose in organizing these conferences was to stimulate debate on the topic.

    1. Brian thanks for that. This seems to be limited to America but may expand. I don’t know if €29.99 a year is a good price for that. I think the will is better. Was just wondering about the laws of intestacy and the 1965 succession act – if someone dies without leaving a will. I worked in inheritance tax for two years and used to see this type of thing but an outdated 1965 succession act will not provide for modern IP.

  4. I suppose this is just the law catching up with technology. I suppose the last thing
    a relative would want to do is take legal action against twitter or Facebook etc to gain control over their loved ones account especially when there morning their loss.

    The photo’s contained on Facebook etc. show happier times, when their loved one was around. These photo’s could help the family of the deceased get through the grieving process.

    1. I completely agree with Julian too. Alan thanks a million for that link. This is completely off topic but when I went into the link, I looked up the Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 out of curiosity and found this (thinking about the whole thing of cyber bullying). In some ways the legislation here has to be admired as it seems ahead of its time. Does this legislation have any relevance today? It seems to be an act that has been forgotten about.

  5. Although it was written 2 years ago, I thought this was a great (and long, grab a coffee) article on the matter:

    As I don’t have a Facebook account but I do have 6 email accounts with 4 different providers, this post tickled my curiosity about what would happen to them should I suddenly exit this valley of tears.
    Well, as you would expect, it is all hidden in those “Terms & Conditions” that nobody reads, and worryingly, there doesn’t seem to be an industry-standard approach for handling your digital afterlife, although I was much surprised by the hard-line modus operandi adopted by Yahoo, which is that they will not grant permission to anyone to access a deceased user’s account. No one. The only permission Yahoo grants is for the account to be deleted.
    As a matter of curiosity, how to proceed:

    A funny(?) take on it:

  6. For those who lead a double life online (not me of course :-)), giving a family access to your online profile might not be a welcome idea. It could end up ruining any good memories that a persons family had of their loved one.

    It is a thought provoking subject and one will become more and more prominent in the years to come.

  7. Really good stimulating posts guys – really thought provoking. Stephen I completely agree with you. To solve all of this I think the person or content creator should be allowed to decide for themselves whether loved ones can access their accounts when they are gone. This can be provided for in a will. I think the real issue lies with those who die intestate but have facebook accounts. Without any legal document, data protection laws would kick in I would imagine. As Kevin said I think we should start reading the small print more. Perhaps they should make it compulsory for everyone to have a will with a section on IP rights. Will be interesting to see how this develops.

  8. I came across this site:
    7 Resources for Handling Digital Life After Death
    which presents several resources for addressing one’s digital assets after death.

    A free service that enables an account holder to pass on digital assets to up to 10 designated heirs and one executor, who is in charge of executing a person’s digital wishes after they pass away.

    Legacy Locker
    A trusted service for transferring access to digital assets, including e-mail, social media and blogging accounts, to trusted sources.

    My Webwill
    Ensures that a trusted person can change or transfer someone’s online accounts, including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Tumblr, YouTube, and more, after a death.
    A social network with an online messaging service that lets anyone schedule messages up to 50 years in advance.

    A service that periodically prompts the account holder to provide a pre-determined password to ensure they’re still alive.

    A service that enables an account holder to schedule e-mails to loved ones, which can only be triggered once an activation code is entered by a trusted source.

    A service that focuses on mass storage of important information that may be crucial for others to know after a death, including information on financials, estate planning, insurance policies account passwords, e-mails and final wishes and directives.

    In my past experiences as a Systems Administrator, the problem of insufficient space on a file server was often presented. Organisations generally have a natural staff turnover where a staff member leaves and is replaced by another. This is healthy for the file servers as a user who had been with the organisation for perhaps 5 years would typically have generated or collected more files than a new user of the file servers. Analysing the storage utilisation by user, a trend would emerge showing the longer a user had been with the organisation, the greater the size of their personal folders. People tend to hoard and hang on to files without realising the background costs of ensuring high availability, sufficient capacity, performance and the cost of backing up the data. Its interesting to consider peoples personal attachment to their data; if I deleted 1 folder of a users files, it would spark an immediate reaction but once the user has left the organisation all of their files are deleted (backups are still available). The point im making here is that in planning the file storage capactity for the organisation, I had to factor in the natural turnover of staff. It was also important to consider people’s changing needs by asking questions like “Do people generate more files now than they did previously?” or “Are files typically larger in size now than they were previously?”. Department shares unfortunately did not follow the same process as while the people in that department would change over time, the department itself would remain with all historical files.

    People share photos online through Facebook or photo sharing websites like Flickr, files are stored on cloud storage like Box, Dropbox or Skydrive and space is consumed by the millions of profiles on various websites. While there is an abundance of storage space available (and growing), its not endless and it has a financial cost. While the data itself has a value (think marketng of Facebook Profile data (x people like a service in an area)), that data ages over time and becomes less relevant so surely these online service providers want to trim the dead wood? I know that in the past, I have had Hotmail and Yahoo accounts where the mail content was deleted due to inactivity.

    My final thought on this; considering many of the services above offer to pass on the credentials to one’s online content in the event of death, if the keys to a car were left in a will it would not infer ownership of the car. The recipient of the keys could be stopped while driving the car, found not to be the owner of the car and subsequently have the car confiscated. Its important to not only pass the credentials but also the ownership in a legally accepted way.

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