PEW – Preserving Online Accounts After Death
“What happens to digital accounts when you die is an issue of great concern to our members because they are the custodians. They are concerned about creating a safe and secure environment for our users,” said Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association whose members include AOL, Yahoo, Facebook and Google.
“Not only is it a privacy issue, but the federal law prohibits us from disclosing that information without consent. The act of dying is not equal to consent,” Szabo said. “We’re not only liable to the sender and recipient but anyone harmed or grieved by that disclosure.”
Szabo said that companies are being forced to decide which law to violate — federal or state. In states that have enacted digital assets laws, his association’s members have “let the terms of service dictate.” He said Facebook has been “very reticent” to turn over contents of communications and private messages, and Yahoo has taken a similar view.
His group does support Rhode Island’s digital assets law, he said, which requires that executors get a court order to access email accounts of people who die and indemnifies the provider from liability.
Szabo points out that Internet companies also have created tools to help users decide what happens to their digital accounts when they die. He cited Google’s inactive account manager and Facebook’s feature that “memorializes” an account and allows friends to post remembrances while the user’s privacy settings remain.