Digital Purgatory: Data Remains After Death

In the spirit of the upcoming Halloween season, I thought it a fine time to examine what happens to our digital lives after death. Few of us really consider our digital remains but I’d encourage you to do so for many reasons.

Like our physical bodies, our electronic personifications serve no purpose to us once we die right? That may be true for many people but I have a few long-held alternative ideas about that subject. The bottom line is this however; electronic information you have placed here and there in cyber-space does not die with you.

I have for a very long time considered my digital persona as my effective immortality which is quite appealing to me. I’m rather cranky that this physical existence has an expiration date but the electronic manifestation of my physical existence lives on. To me, the big question is really where it resides and who my caretakers are?

In our modern society, one of the tools I use to answer this question is in the data protection laws and copyright laws. It is not difficult to wrap our electronic lives in copyright law. How long does a copyright last you ask? The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first (Source: US Copyright Office).

Using copyright law, we are well on our way to immortality aren’t we? Well, at least we are able to extend ourselves for at least 70 years beyond death before we enter the public domain. The current copyright laws encourage the reuse and publication of information. At some point in time, all of those email messages, tweets, blog posts and other contributions to social and professional media will be completely under the control of the handlers. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, GoDaddy and the countless others will have the freedom to do whatever they like to your digital remains.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps taking a proactive approach is prudent. What I mean by this is that you should consider what the electronic universe looks like and make some plans for it. If it’s a funeral that you want, then periodically purge data where it lives. You can also establish a living will with instructions to do this as well. Your executor and heirs will need the court instructions to carry this request out so document it now while you can.

Some of us have domains and sites established that would be in limbo upon our deaths and these hosting companies are under no obligation to continue service or maintain your data once the tab is no longer being paid. Herein lays another area to consider in your instructions and preparatory efforts. Maybe you instruct your executor to backup that blog and preserve it or maybe their instructions are to work with that hosting company to purge that information. At this point, the choice is yours.

Funerals and memorials are for the living right? At this point in time I cannot think of any laws on the books to deal concisely with our digital remains. We may indeed take our secrets to the grave but not our electronic secrets. There is a certain level of privacy we enjoy while we are in control of our existence. This changes after we die. Do you care what your survivors will think about you once they are completely in control of your data remains or when it enters the public domain?

Some companies such as Facebook, once they are notified of a person’s death, lock your profile in a memorialized state (Source: Facebook). Your status is turned off and only confirmed friends are permitted to continue posting to your profile or view your timeline. This may or may not be appealing to you, so again, instruct your executor on what you want while you can.

I do think that legislators should put some laws on the books to deal with our digital remains and I’m sure this will eventually happen. But, until then, the burden in really our own and depending on our preferences, the approach varies. Do I want my data remains perfectly manicured and preserved creating certain immortality; or do I want to cease to exist at all? Maybe I do nothing and just waft off into the Ethernet. At this moment, the choice is yours to make.

Article first published as Digital Purgatory: Data Remains After Death on Technorati.