Edwards: Death and the Web

Prof. Lilian Edwards (bio, blog, @lilianedwards ) spoke at Wolfson College in Cambridge as part of the Arcadia Programme (blog).  With this particular project, the audience included quite a number of librarians (some involved in 23 Things Cambridge – worth checking out), as well as lawyers, techies, and other interested parties.  The chair for the evening was Prof. John Naughton (website, blog, @jjn1), who also supplied the Apple laptop that replaced an uncooperative PC.  I’m saying nothing…

Anyway, the topic of the talk was ‘death and the web’, and these are my notes (handwritten at first, typed up on the train afterwards).  As always, this is my summary of what was said, please contact the speaker to verify quotes/assertions if you need a more formal report. But from now on, this is a paraphrased summary of what the speaker said.

Now for starters, this isn’t a topic that is mentioned all that often, except in dramatic events that make it into tabloid newspapers.  Yet with 400m Facebook users, some will be dead by tomorrow – and with the average age being 34 (in 2007 – probably older now), this is a developing issue.  So what happens to ‘digital assets’ – this doesn’t just mean virtual property in the sense of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGS), but a broader concept including profiles and personal data.  Who owns all this when you die – you or the platform?  The issues include preservation, succession, and value (economic, dignity or other wise).

Traditionally, we see ‘love letters’ and the like as important sources for research.  But the equivalent today may be an email, a YouTube song, a Facebook update or a blog post.  In our digital lives, many of us ‘self-map’ through web 2.0 services.  We may not keep a private diary, but some will share information with ‘strangers’.  Where is the balance, especially as between privacy and the public interest?  The Library of Congress announced this year that it had acquired all public Twitter messages (with some horrified at this) and services like the Wayback Machine (archive.org) are engaged in big projects.

But of course, much of the information we are talking about is in ‘walled gardens’; some may maintain their own sites but many others use services like Facebook.  This will mean accepting terms and conditions, and the existence of restrictions on ‘getting data out’, through both technical and legal means.  Digital assets can range from email to preferences on last.fm (would we like to know what famous poets listened to, if we had the data?) and even reputation such as that associated with eBay, which can have important economic consequences, or ‘friend of a friend’ networks.  The issues are both of data protection and ownership/IP.  In the case of the latter, we need to look at the license (non-exclusive but quite broad) as well as the restrictions on access.  Facebook is a service that has a ‘death policy’, i.e allowing particular relatives/friends of deceased (although not proper legal categories of succession) to apply to delete or memorialise the account (but not to take it over).  There is no way for the user to indicate a preference for actions after his or her own death – should there be?

So we see the impact of intermediaries, property, multiple parties and also the location (for legal purposes) of the relevant property.  Furthermore, there are wide disparities as between the practice of various services, such as Yahoo (complete deletion) vs last.fm (maintain as is part of community data).  Yahoo was indeed the subject of one of the few cases on this topic, relating to access to the email account of a deceased soldier.

In general: do we believe in privacy after death?  Both libel and data protection have restrictions.  Even something we understand (or think we do) like organ donation still provides for a family veto.  But think about email – would you want your family having full access?

There are various emerging suggestions, including digitalwills (like LegacyLocker), including passwords with the actual will – but most people don’t have wills, particular younger people who die suddenly.  Should we instead regulate the platform – or encourage disintermediation at the level of the individual user?

(Talk ends).

In the question and answer session, a number of additional issues were explored, including the role of self-archiving (noting that a lot of web 2.0 content is but a copy so the original can be treated differently), access to physical-digital artefacts (a portable hard drive, for example) after death, jurisdiction and choice of law questions, Gmail and the Data Protection Directive, the powerlessness of the individual user, and the relevance of probate orders (or similar devices) for virtual assets that may appear to be de minimis.

A very interesting talk, then, and one that takes on particular relevance as the Data Protection Directive is reviewed in Europe and the struggles of services like Facebook in dealing with high-profile privacy disputes continues.  I do wonder (and said from the floor) how researchers, librarians and archivists will deal with the opportunity (but also the dangers) of a very different type of record of the activities and communications of the deceased than many are used to.  Think too of the individual – I had an interesting conversation with a colleague recently about the role of the personal email archive – do you have every email you ever sent?  I have some (probably more than others), but not all (damn Hotmail automatic delete some time in the 90s), in a variety of formats and filing systems.  Others keep a single searchable file but not a system of folders, or purge on a regular basis.  But that’s certainly not the case for other (non-email) aspects of life.  Things to think about, for sure.

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2 thoughts on “Edwards: Death and the Web

  1. Hi Daithi-

    The lecture that you attended sounded really interesting. I work for the company called Entrustet.com, which handles many of the issues regarding what happens to an individual’s digital assets after passing. If you have a chance you should check out the website.

    -Christine Ebinger

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