Current Law Leaves Online Lives in Limbo After Death
If you are typical these days, a significant portion of your identity is probably located online. If you have social media accounts like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, then you likely interact with family and friends that way. You may even have a lot of photos of family on social media, including some you may not keep anywhere else. Increasingy, people are buying music and videos online and storing them there.
Let's face it. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time online, there is a good chance a significant portion of your life and assets there. But what happens to all of that if you died suddenly? Who would notify your Facebook friends and Twitter followers? How would your loved ones download your Instagram photos and the music and videos you purchased online?
It's easy, right? Your loved ones or your executor can just contact those companies and get your login info. Not exactly. In fact, your family and the executors will find it very difficult to do that without breaking the law. As the law currently stands, it's actually illegal for anyone to access any of your accounts without your prior approval. Worse, most online companies will never divulge anyone's logins and passwords under any circumstances, even when a person dies and surviving family members are requesting it.
Some states are starting to get it. In Florida, for example, there is a bill before their legislature that would give specifically designated individuals access to the digital accounts of dead or incapacitated people. But they would be only the second state to pass such a law, with the other state, Delaware, hving passed the first one just last year.
As is always the case with technology, lawmakers are almost always behind the curve. Most applicable laws, as it exists right now, was established in the age of paper, when important documents were stored or shoved where people could find them, even if they had to search for a long time. Now, many important documents and possessions are stored on remote computer servers and held by third parties, and the law largely treats them as "finders keepers."
The new Florida bill would allow an executor, personal representative, trustee or guardian to treat any digital assets or accounts as property to be included as part of the assets of an estate. That would allow those people to inventory all digital accounts and assets the same as other physical assets and dispose of them accordingly. If an executor wanted access to a Facebook, Google or iTunes account, they would simply have to request access from the companies, and the companies would have to allow access.
Some Internet companies oppose this type of legislation, citing concerns about privacy and even hackers. However, as digital assets become more important to our lives, the law will have to change to keep up, and those companies who provide us with server space will have to change their practices to modernize the rule and make them more relevant. Everyone is going to die at some point, and each person's digital assets should be theirs, not Google's or Facebooks or Apple's.