The Guardian Australia
Who will deal with your online presence when you die? How to create a ‘digital will’
Two things are certain in life: death and the internet.
With so many day-to-day functions, tasks and memories now taking place online, the question of what will become of your digital legacy – who will preserve, control or delete your accounts when you are gone – has become increasingly important.
Making a plan now can prevent identity theft, preserve documents and records you want saved, and stop your friends and family receiving painful pop-up reminders on social media. But from privacy issues and cybersecurity to copyright, there are many potential hurdles to organising your digital will.
Here’s what you need to know.
What can a person to do organise their digital legacy?
Dr Emily van der Nagel from Monash University says that people should spend some time planning for how their online accounts and identities will be managed after they die.
At a basic level, she says people should think of it like backing up their data. If there are things you want to preserve – for your family, friends or for your own records – it’s best to download a version so that you won’t have to rely on third-party companies.
That could be favourite photos, tweets, blog posts, videos or songs you’ve uploaded.
“A lot of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and in some cases YouTube, offer really good tools for you to download everything that has been part of that platform,” she says. “That is really good practice to do, semi-regularly, say when you are updating your passwords.
“It is worth thinking about how you may want to save this digital content for people who might want to access it after your death. It might be good practice to curate a little bit, set up a folder.”
The reason for doing so is that once you are gone, your family, friends or an executor may find it harder to access your data than they anticipated.
“A lot of platforms have terms of service agreements that prevent other people from logging in to your account,” she says. “Of course that is a privacy thing, especially things like email accounts or social media accounts that include direct messaging. Those messages are considered private for good reason.”
What if I’m the family or friend of someone who has died?
On sites like Facebook, there are options to have people designated as “legacy contacts” who can manage your account after you die. Your executor can then decide whether to leave your account active, delete it, or memorialise it – which can stop it showing up in feeds in insensitive ways.
“The danger is if you don’t do anything, it can impact on the algorithm in an upsetting or unsettling kind of way,” van der Nagel says. “You can get them turning up as people you may know, or nudged about a happy memory that happened a year ago.”
Another way to manage a digital legacy is to create a secure document (either a physical sealed item, a hard drive, or a password-protected cloud drive) that has your accounts, usernames and passwords. Though, van der Nagel warns, you should take all the necessary privacy precautions and only give it to people you trust.
“It’s really important that people are aware that these services exist,” she says. “There are steps you can take before it happens, you don’t want to have to deal with this suddenly and unexpectedly while you are grieving.” What about email?
“It depends on which platform, but
there are ways people can access the accounts of a deceased person,” van der Nagel says. “With Microsoft, which runs Outlook, you can request access to some information in that account and close it. There is an email address set up specifically for that – the Microsoft custodian of records.”
Van der Nagel says that this is similar to letting banks or billing companies know that a person has died, and usually relies on showing a company a death certificate.
But, due to privacy concerns, she says people should be aware they may not gain full access to an account.
“Through email, you can turn off some services, and gain some information. For example if your mother has died you can turn off some services … but you can’t necessarily read every email that she sent.”
Is there a one-stop-shop to set up a ‘digital will’ yourself?
Van der Nagael says that in Victoria, a person can create a digital register through the state trustee.
This is quite an involved process that goes alongside the legal making of a will, but if done right, you can include all your account logins and information.
“You can create a digital register, it doesn’t go in your will, it goes alongside your will. You can basically give all the keys to your lawyer. Now that would be a really daunting option for someone to set up in their 20s, who does not yet own property. In that case, maybe it would be the most practical option to save it in a hard drive and give it to your dad.”
What legal rights do I have? Can these tech companies still use my photos, tweets and more after I die?
The answer is, broadly, yes.
Van der Nagel says that most terms of service for these social media accounts set up licences and rights between an individual person (ie you) and the companies.
For example, it is very possible that a video that you make and put on Youtube does not necessarily go to your family after your death.
“This is more complicated that simply owning a photograph or owning a CD,” she says. “Physical property you are legally allowed to bequeath. Digital property is not that easy in some cases.”
And sites like Instagram usually reserve the right to use your photos to advertise the platform – and this could technically continue after you die.
Can you ask sites to delete accounts or take them down?
“You can in some cases,” van der Nagel says. “It is always easier to do when you have a death certificate. It is an important legal document.
“On Google there is an inactive account manager, so you can set up and add trusted contacts who can go in and shut down your account. For Microsoft you can contact the Microsoft custodian of records.
“Usually you can show the death certificate, show yourself as the executor and put into place the processes they have put in place. This will usually mean shutting down the account rather than gaining access to the account.
But she adds: “It is much easier with Facebook to memorialise accounts than to delete them.
“It is not hard to say that Facebook still wants your data after you are dead. These platforms don’t want to let go of somebody’s account and all the info they have given the platform”.
It's worth thinking about how to save digital content for people who might want to access it after your death