From his Facebook page, you wouldn't know Paul Walker died last fall. Source: Facebook Source: Facebook
From his Facebook page, you wouldn't know Paul Walker died last fall. Source: Facebook Source: Facebook

We live increasingly virtual lives. We are our Facebook profiles, our iTunes libraries, our Amazon wish lists, our Dropbox files, our Twitter feeds. Online, we’re permanent, intangible, immortal. So what happens when we die?

The digital afterlife is one of many areas in which law has yet to catch up with technology's speedy intrusion into our businesses, communications and lives. There’s little consistency in how technology companies handle -- or don't handle -- what happens to an account when the user dies, leaving family and friends locked out or unsure what to do. A new proposal would address that, simplifying the process of laying digital ghosts to rest.

Called the “Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act," the bill would grant people with fiduciary authority the right to access and control the deceased’s digital accounts. This would let them inherit digital belongings in the same way they do physical ones, and stand in for the original user for the terms-of-service agreements that users sign when creating accounts. The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit group of lawyers who draft and promote legislation for states to adopt, will vote on the proposed law in July.

Managing digital accounts after death has been in a legal gray zone, though recent efforts by some states show the demand for a more comprehensive system. As Pew Research shows, seven states have “digital asset laws” to manage the accounts of the deceased, and 14 more are considering legislation. The current systems vary; for states, the proposed law may be the simplified, up-to-date and uniform solution.

Source: Pew Research
Source: Pew Research

Absent a comprehensive legal framework for maintaining our digital afterlives, some online companies have started to create their own processes for account management for the deceased. Twitter has a contact form to help assist with deactivating, not transferring, the deceased’s account. Google doesn’t guarantee help with account transfers but has a multi-step process to submit a request. Yahoo accounts are nontransferable, but can be terminated after submitting a detailed request.

Shutting down a deceased person’s Facebook account requires the user’s birth certificate, death certificate and proof the person submitting the request is a lawful representative of the user. Facebook also takes requests to memorialize accounts, recently updating the visibility of these accounts to keep the setting of the account the same as the setting the user chose, and offers "Look Back" videos that compile the Facebook highlights of people who have passed away for family and friends.

You can also take managing your digital legacy into your own hands. Some startups are stepping in to help organize the virtual afterlife. A few options to consider:

  1. Set up posthumous messaging. Services including Afterwords.cc and Dead Man’s Switch let you create videos, e-mails or text messages that will be sent after you have died. (Just make sure that if you’ve set up a service like this and it e-mails you, you verify that you’re still alive. For some services, if they don’t hear back after multiple attempts, they assume you’re dead and send the messages.)

  2. Make a Google will. The Inactive Account Manager tool, found in the Google account settings page, lets you decide if you’d like your data deleted or passed on to trusted contacts after your account goes inactive for a certain period of time.

  3. Create a memorial website. Among others, 1000Memories, which is owned by Ancestry.com, invites friends of the deceased to submit photos and stories, and Bcelebrated lets the user create their own autobiographic sites.

  4. Protect your digital assets. Sites including MyCyberSafe, Cirrus and Chronicle of Life store your digital files and accounts in one place.

  5. Plan your funeral. Using the app Legacy Organiser, you can leave suggestions for your funeral or will and create a 50-song “soundtrack of your life.”

  6. Back up your DNA and mind. Spit into a tube and send your cells in to LifeNaut to store in a "bio file." You can also submit information for the company to create a computer-based avatar based on your attitudes, values and mannerisms.

  7. Create an artificial intelligence persona to tweet in your voice after you die. Still under development by researchers at England's Queen Mary University, the project's tagline reads: "When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting."

Some of these ideas seem way too creepy and sci-fi for my taste. When I die, I have no desire to haunt the Internet as an undead tweeting machine. But making sure that legally my digital accounts and files are easily passed into the hands of someone I love and trust after I die? That’s something I can support.

To contact the author of this article: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.