What About Your e-Life When Your Life Ends?

A student pointed out this story to me: After death, a struggle for their digital memories

Stationed in a remote corner of Iraq, Marine Corps reservist Karl Linn’s only means of communicating with the outside world was through a computer. Several times a week, the 20-year-old combat engineer would log on and send out a batch of e-mails and update a Web site with pictures of his adventures.

For his parents in Midlothian, Va., the electronic updates were so precious that when he was killed last week in an enemy ambush, one of the first things they did was to contact the company that hosted their son’s account. They wanted to know how to access the data and preserve it.

But who owns the material is a source of intense debate.

[…] As computers continue to permeate our lives, what happens to digital bits of information when their owners pass away has become one of the vexing questions of the Internet age. Much of that information is stored in accounts on remote servers and has no physical manifestation that can be neatly transferred. There are no clear laws of inheritance, meaning that Internet providers must often decide for themselves what is right.

Many Internet firms have found themselves facing criticism no matter what they do. If they decline to release the information, they are labeled villains by people supporting the families. If they give it up, they are chastised for violating their own privacy statements.

Complicating such disputes is the very nature of e-mail, which many consider to be more personal and informal than regular letters; some even use it to correspond anonymously, to hide aspects of their lives that they may not want revealed to others.

Also from the Washington Post: After Death, a Struggle for Their Digital Remains [pdf]