Digital Afterlife: Who has the rights to your accounts - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

What happens to your social media accounts after you die?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It's not something we like to think about, but if you or a loved one were to pass away unexpectedly, what would happen to your online accounts?

When it comes to social media, most sites won't give you access to a deceased loved one's account, regardless of the relationship.

Vicki Stilwell says after she lost her husband, Rick, four months ago, she also lost access to many of his online accounts. "That's one of the negatives right now," said Vicki. "I didn't have any of Rick's passwords."

While Rick is still logged in to some accounts through mobile devices, Vicki does not have the option of logging in to Rick's Twitter or Facebook pages. "There's going to have to be something done as far as the families having access to the things that they would like," said Vicki.

As it stands, no two terms of service are the same. Facebook and Twitter's policies won't grant access to the social media account of a deceased user regardless of relationship.

With evidence of death, Facebook will memorialize an account, freezing it for only current friends to see.  "Our standard procedure when we receive a report that a user is deceased is to memorialize the account, which restricts profile and search privacy to friends only, but leaves the profile up so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance," said Andrew Noyes from Facebook.

Facebook will also honor requests to deactivate an account. With a copy of a death certificate, Twitter says it will work with a verified family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of the user to deactivate an account. You can also request an archive of the deceased user's public tweets.

"The problem we have today is there is no one set of laws that govern your account when you die," said Evan Carroll, Co-author of the book "Your Digital Afterlife" and manager of the website ‘The Digital Beyond. "There are various states with their laws and there are various services that have their own tools and terms of services."

Carroll says there are currently six states that have some type of digital assets law, but he says the Uniform Law Commission is working to standardize laws, too.

"Instead of having the negotiations happen fifty times, this organization does it once and then other states can choose to adopt it," said Carroll.

Carroll says ultimately it is important companies like Facebook and Twitter are in on the conversation, because while the laws bring awareness, he says the policies ultimately rule. "There are some challenges to making these laws enforceable, but I think that's the importance of these national uniformed laws efforts because these companies are involved in that process," said Carroll.

Google is leading the way in putting the choice in the consumer's hand. The company recently announced a major policy change in creating the "Inactive Account Manager" which allows users to pre-select what they want to happen to their account in the event of death or inactivity.

Before "Inactive Account Manager" officials with Google say a person needed to provide documents like a death certificate and government ID to access a deceased user's account.

Google's Manager of Privacy and Security, Nadja Blagojevic, says now through the service the user will select who, if anyone, he or she wants to access the account after a certain amount of time of inactivity. If the account remains inactive for that period of time, Google will send an email to remind the user that the time of inactivity is approaching. With no response, Google will follow through with the actions in listed in the "Inactive Account Manager."

"We really hope Inactive Account Manager let's Google users take a more proactive approach and is a product that both helps them manage their digital assets but is respectful of their privacy and security," said Blagojevic.

Carroll says while each company's policies may be different, there are some things you can still do to prepare, including creating a note in a will.

"Make note of those user names and passwords in a document, and in your will you can include a paragraph that says, 'I have left a memorandum that specifies instructions for my digital assets. I request you carry out those actions.'," said Carroll.

Carroll says do not include any passwords in your will because it is a public document, but do be pro-active about what will happen to your digital assets. Ultimately your current digital memories, may be the memories of the future.

"I personally think you should take the approach that your digital content can make it to the next generation," said Carroll. "You could choose what's meaningful for them, and continue to leave it behind."

Carroll says if you have recently lost a loved one, your best option is to follow through with requests allowed under current policies. However, he adds if you feel you absolutely need access to a loved one's account, there are digital experts who may be able to help.

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.

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