Monica Luhar for KCET – March 16, 2015
When you or a loved one passes on, what exactly happens to their digital information?
Many social media services offer privacy settings to prevent unwanted access or identity theft, but there is no standard process for disclosing or hiding information once a user passes away.
Assemblymember Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) is seeking just that with a bill to protect a deceased person’s digital assets or electronic communication. AB 691, the Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act, would apply to social media, e-mail, audio recordings, photos, and any other form of electronic communication stored on a computer.
Under the bill, a decedent would be allowed to grant their loved one’s access to their accounts through a written will or an online setting through the product or service, said Calderon. He believes individual users should be the one to decide what to do with their digital assets, not the online company providing the service.
“Often times, families attempt to contact the online company to access their loved one’s online information, but this can be cumbersome. And as we’ve seen in the past, it can lead to a court battle between the family and the online company,” Calderon told KCET in an email.
Some large social media networks like Facebook already allow users to report a deceased person’s account. AB 691 would complement those policies, Calderon said.
Facebook most recently added the “Legacy Contact” feature which allows a user to designate a trusted family member or close companion in the event that he or she passes.
Benjamin Orzeske, spokesperson for the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uniformity of state laws across the nation, says law has not kept pace with the evolving nature of digital property.
When people pass on, courts usually appoint another person, or fiduciary to manage assets, or property, he said.
“A generation ago, we kept our files in file cabinets, photos in photo albums, and a human being delivered our mail,” Orzeske explained in an email. “Today, many of us use the Internet to perform the same functions.”