US commission proposes access for loved ones to the dead's digital life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 11:31pm


A group of influential US lawyers says it has an answer to the question of what should happen to a person's Facebook, Yahoo, Gmail and other online accounts when they die.

The Uniform Law Commission, whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardise state laws, on Wednesday endorsed a plan that would give loved ones access to - but not control of - the deceased's digital accounts, unless specified otherwise in a will.

To become law in a state, the legislation would have to be adopted by the legislature. If it did, a person's online life could become as much a part of estate planning as deciding what to do with physical possessions.

"This is something most people don't think of until they are faced with it. They have no idea what is about to be lost," said Karen Williams, who sued Facebook for access to her 22-year-old son Loren's account after he died in a 2005 motorcycle accident.

"Our e-mail accounts are our filing cabinets these days," said Suzanne Brown Walsh, an attorney who chaired the drafting committee on the proposed legislation. But "if you need access to an e-mail account, in most states you wouldn't get it".

But privacy activists are sceptical of the proposal. Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, said a judge's approval should be needed for access, to protect the privacy of both the owners of accounts and the people who communicate with them.

"The digital world is a different world" from offline, McCall said. "No one would keep 10 years of every communication they ever had with dozens or even hundreds of other people under their bed."

Many people assume they can decide what happens by sharing certain passwords with a trusted family member, or even making those passwords part of their will. But anti-hacking laws and most companies' terms of service agreements prohibit anyone from accessing an account that isn't theirs.

Several tech providers have come up with their own solutions. Facebook, for example, will "memorialise" accounts by allowing already confirmed friends to continue to view photos and old posts.

According to the Uniform Law Commission proposal, the personal representative of the deceased, such as the executor of a will, would get access to - but not control of - a person's digital files so long as the deceased didn't prohibit it in the will.

Williams said she supported letting people decide in their wills whether accounts should be kept from family members. "I could understand where some people don't want to share everything," she said in a phone interview this week. "But to us, losing him [our son] unexpectedly, anything he touched became so valuable to us."