Death and the Internet

A recent extension to the cultural relationship with death is the increasing number of people who die having created a large amount of digital content, such as social media profiles, that will remain after death. This may result in concern and confusion, because of automated features of dormant accounts (e.g. birthday reminders), uncertainty of the deceased's preferences that profiles be deleted or left as a memorial, and whether information that may violate the deceased's privacy (such as email or browser history) should be made accessible to family.

Issues with how this information is sensitively dealt with are further complicated as it may belong to the service provider (not the deceased) and many do not have clear policies on what happens to the accounts of deceased users. While some sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have policies related to death, others remain dormant until deleted due to inactivity or transferred to family or friends. It is expected that the accounts of deceased people will outnumber those of active users unless provided include specific policies and accounts' management tools.[1]


Gmail[2] and Hotmail[3] allow the email accounts of the deceased to be accessed, provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide access, citing the No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause in the Yahoo! terms of service.[4] In 2005 Yahoo! was ordered by the Probate Court of Oakland County, Michigan, to release emails of deceased US Marine Justin Ellsworth to his father, John Ellsworth.[5]

By website


Facebook's policy on death is to turn the deceased user's profile into a memorial, "as a place where people can save and share their memories of those who've passed."[6] Memorializing of a profile involves: the deceased user no longer showing up in the "Suggestions" box on the right-hand side of the homepage; the privacy setting is altered so that only confirmed friends can view the profile and search for it; contact information and status updates are removed; no one is able to log into the account in the future.[6] Deletion of an account entails the complete removal of the deceased user's data from the online platform, however Facebook holds the legal right to sustain the user's credentials for up to 90 days after request of deletion.[7]

In order to memorialize a deceased person's account, a special contact form must be filled out.[8] In this contact form, a proof of death must be provided, such as an obituary or news article. Both family members and non-family members are allowed to submit this form.


The general terms of service[9] for Dropbox state that inactive accounts will be deleted after 90 days since the last login. Access to the account of a deceased individual may be requested by providing verification that the person is deceased and the applicant has a legal right to access their files (such as a court order).[10]


In April 2013, Google announced the creation of the 'Inactive Account Manager', which allows users of Google services to set up a process in which ownership and control of inactive accounts is transferred to a delegated user.[11][12]

Google also allows users to submit a range of requests regarding accounts belonging to deceased users.[2] Google can work with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to be deceased, and in certain circumstances may provide content from a deceased user’s account.


MySpace will allow a memorial to be set up to honor deceased users.


Upon request, Twitter can close accounts and provide archives of public tweets for deceased users. Family members are required to submit a formal request to Twitter's Trust and Safety department. They must have a copy of the death certificate or Twitter will not take action despite obituary articles and news clips. This has changed and now Twitter only allows account deactivation for the deceased.[13]


Users who have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to Wikipedia can be noted at a central memorial page. Wikipedia user pages are ordinarily fully edit-protected after the user has died, to prevent vandalism.


YouTube grants access to accounts of deceased persons under certain conditions.[14] It is one of the data options that one can select to give access to a trusted contact with Google's Inactive Account Manager.[15]

Digital inheritance

Digital inheritance is the process of handing over (personal) digital assets to (human) beneficiaries. These digital assets include digital estates and the right to use them. It may include bank accounts, writings, photographs, and social interactions.

There are several services that offer to keep multiple passwords, sending them to people of personal choice after death. Some of these send the customer an email from time to time, prompting to confirm that that person is still alive, and failure to respond to multiple emails makes the service provider to assume that the person has deceased, and will thereafter give out the passwords as previously requested.[16] The Data Inheritance function from SecureSafe gives an "activator code" that the customer will hand to another trustworthy person of personal choice, and in the event of death that person then enters the code into Secure Safe's system to get access to the deceased person's digital inheritance.[17] Legacy Locker and SafeBeyond require two verifiers who both must confirm the death, as well as providing a death certificate, before any passwords will be handed out.[16]

For those who are paranoid about their online Privacy, platforms like LifeBank offer a helpful secure capability to store all internet account passwords offline whilst ensuring that a trusted person is given permission to access the individual's LifeBank when they die. This gives the inheritor the ability to access and edit accounts, including deleting information or indeed the entire account.

See also


Further reading

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