Death Often Brings Disputes Over Online Lives For many people, keeping a deceased loved one alive through an online memorial is a source of comfort. But for others, cleaning up online profiles and shutting down e-mail accounts can require some legal wrangling. In one recent case, hackers stole a deceased person's domain names.
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Death Often Brings Disputes Over Online Lives

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Death Often Brings Disputes Over Online Lives

Death Often Brings Disputes Over Online Lives

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel. And now, All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Generally, in this segment, we explore how digital technology is changing the way we live. Well, today we're going to look at how it's also changing the way we die. The Internet has brought with it new bereavement rituals, and also new legal questions that would've been unthinkable only a few years ago.

In a few minutes we'll talk about this with our regular technology contributor, Omar Gallaga, of the Austin American-Statesman. But first, here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi with a consideration of death in the Digital Age.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Kristen Wiggins(ph) is her sorority sister's keeper, in a way. Nine months after 23-year-old Jennifer Lewis'(ph) death from ovarian cancer, Wiggins keeps the password to her Facebook account and watches over it.

Ms. KRISTEN WIGGINGS: People use it as a memorial site, in a way, where they go on there and, like, they'll say, you know, I was thinking about you, Jen. I love you. You'll always be missed.

NOGUCHI: Wiggins does this also to promote the foundation established in Jennifer's name, all with her friend's family's blessing. But there are other examples where keeping the memory of someone alive online becomes far more complicated.

Mr. JOHN DOZIER JR. (President, Dozier Internet Law): You could imagine three or four siblings having a difference of opinion as to whether to leave something up for memorial's sake or not.

NOGUCHI: John Dozier Jr. is president of the Dozier Internet Law firm, a practice that sees cases where the law and technology come into conflict. In one recent case, a man's death prompted online looting.

Mr. DOZIER: Hackers came in and stole the domain names before the beneficiaries of the estate figured out he owned them. We ended up having to chase him all around the world. And we were fortunate to get them back.

NOGUCHI: In the past a person epitaph might be etched on a gravestone or in a newspaper obituary. That, Dozier says, changes online.

Mr. DOZIER: That concept of that being the final statement isn't so in a social networking environment. And you very much have the whiteboard or blackboard effect where you never know what's going to be said.

NOGUCHI: Keeping the door open to new messages and photos can not only be painful, it's hard to prosecute defamation in cases where either the poster or the subject is dead.

Mr. JEREMY TOEMAN (Legacy Locker): Personally, I want my Facebook account just gone.

NOGUCHI: That's Jeremy Toeman, whose own failed attempts trying to access his deceased grandmother's email account led to a new business - Legacy Locker. The company services essentially a safety deposit box of passwords and account information and instructions to survivors on how they want their online identity handled.

Mr. TOEMAN: I have, currently, 15, what I deemed as important digital assets. And these did include, you know, my blog and Twitter 'cause I do use them for some work things. But I also include my email accounts. I have six different email addresses, my GoDaddy, my iTunes store credit.

NOGUCHI: The service would help his wife contact everyone he worked with and let her know whether he'd want to have a continued like online. launched last month and has more than 1,000 members.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. And we're joined now, as we are most Mondays, by Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman. Welcome once again, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: That's for having me.

SIEGEL: Omar, when you die, who owns your email or your Facebook page for that matter? Is the law actually clear on that?

GALLAGA: Well, it really depends on the service. Things like Yahoo! Mail and Google's Gmail, they all have different terms of how they handle a person's email or their account after they die. For instance, you know, Yahoo! and Gmail, they treated the user's email as private property. And they won't hand over the passwords or the emails to the family members without some serious legal action.

Google's Gmail, for instance, requires a copy of a death certificate, copy of a power of attorney document, a birth certificate and an email sent from the account in question. So it's not really an easy thing to do and it does bring up the issue of, you know, does Facebook own all of that information on your wall, or do you? And will they open it up to relatives after you've died?

SIEGEL: Is this question starting to crop up in people's wills? You know, I leave my Facebook page and log in information to my children or something like that?

GALLAGA: It absolutely is. You know, we had a - at South by Southwest Interactive this year in March, there was a whole core conversation panel devoted to this topic. And it brings up so many thorny legal issues, so many ethical issues of, you know, even if you do have the legal authority to pour through a family member's email or their personal digital content, is it the right thing to do?

And sites like Legacy Locker allow you to sort of decide those kinds of things beforehand so that your family members aren't having to question, you know, would they really want to poke through your email. There are plenty of services that will assist you in storing digital information. But sometimes something as simple as keeping a USB drive with all that information and passing it on to someone that you trust, a family member or a friend, that's better than just leaving all these questions unanswered.

SIEGEL: What if you want all these questions answered, but you want the answer to be nobody should have access to my stuff after I die. My email will go to the grave with me. Can you do that? Is there a service that will guarantee their deletion, say, upon your demise?

GALLAGA: Well, not that I know, but sometimes the best way not to have your email tampered with is just to do nothing. Sites like Gmail and Yahoo! will delete an account after a certain period of inactivity. And like I said before, legally it's a little bit difficult for people to get into your email. So sometimes, you know, it'll just go dead after a certain period of time.

SIEGEL: Let's turn away from the legal questions here to the cultural ones, which is things like a Facebook page becoming an online condolence book, using the Web as a site for mourning and grieving.

GALLAGA: Right. That's one way to sort of get around the issue of not having the person's log in and password. On Facebook you could just post on a friend's Facebook wall. And oftentimes mourners will just begin posting their messages of love and their memories on a Facebook wall. There's a whole industry, also, of memorial sites like There's one called Gates of Rememberance, eObituary, that are the online equivalent of funeral homes.

And just in the way somebody might preplan their own funeral, you could try, where you can set up your own online obituary and your own online tribute to yourself. If you're known in life as a control freak, your close family and friends will understand the pains you took to get your afterlife virtual condolences right.

SIEGEL: And then there are instances of virtual mourning online crossing over to real life, but also to fictional characters.

GALLAGA: Right. You know, when the - when Kal Penn's character died on the show, "House," the Fox TV Web site set up a virtual memorial for his character. And, you know…

SIEGEL: He didn't die. He went to the White House to work there, which is - was never heard from again, yes.

GALLAGA: Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, but he committed suicide on the show. And then, yeah, and led to a White House appointment. And then last year there was this case of these online mourners in the game "World of Warcraft." They were holding a very solemn funeral for a woman who had died in real life and it was crashed by an opposing party.

They came in and made fun of them and crashed the party and then they posted an online video about it that became a viral hit. So sometimes online it's hard to get people to take death so seriously.

SIEGEL: Well, Omar, thank you once again.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman and for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And if you have had personal experience of these issues, share them with us and post to our new blog at

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