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Digital Life and Death

Recently, PBS’s Newshour ran a story, “What Happens to Our Digital Lives When We Die?” The story discussed the inability of a decedents’ next of kin, in most states, to access digital content after the account holder’s death. This means that photos, emails, social media posts, etc. may be lost to the parents, spouses, and children of the deceased. In addition to the loss of mementos, it is often unclear what happens to an individual’s digital assets upon death. Currently, there are five states that have laws that deal with digital assets: Connecticut, Indiana, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.* Just recently, the Virginia assembly has passed a bill on digital assets.

The Newshour told the story of a family whose 15-year-old son committed suicide. The family requested access to his Facebook site in the hope of understanding why he took his own life. Facebook denied the request. Facebook’s denial was based on the user’s right to privacy. In a similar case, In re Facebook, 2012 WL 7071331 (2012) the court quashed a civil subpoena to compel Facebook to produce the records of a deceased person. The court based its decision on the language of the Stored Communication Act, Title II of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act P.L. 99-508, 100 Stat. 1848, 1860 (1986), which protects a person’s online data.**

 

Law reviews, articles, blog posts, and sites on this issue:

* Hat tip to Digital Estate Resource.

** Hat tip to The Stored Communication Act And Facebook After Death, it-lex