Business Today

Online death

Dealing with death on the Internet is almost as tough as real life.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: January 24, 2010

This column is not about how you can remove your online persona. That, honestly, is extremely difficult. You need an e-mail account much like you need roti, kapda aur makaan and increasingly you need to be on a social network of some sort or another, which is usually Facebook. But just like going online is a certainty of life in the modern age, a much older certainty of life trumps that. Death. So, what happens to the online life of a family member or a friend you have lost to the Grim Reaper?

Well, the "Terms of Service" (TOS) for most online services are quite clear: An account is non-transferable and there is no "right" of survivorship. That is to say that the legal heirs of a deceased individual have no "rights" to the deceased person's account and its contents. Yahoo!'s TOS clearly states, "Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted."

However, some large Internet e-mail providers can make exceptions (like they do for law enforcement, apparently). Google offers something like this for Gmail, where if you have a legal need to access the contents of a deceased individual's mails, you can contact Google, but only through fax or snail mail.

There is a help page for this in the Gmail "Help" section, but, to cut a long story short, you have to send Google proof that you are the person's lawful representative along with a copy of the death certificate. You also have to show them a mail that you received from the e-mail account you wish to access.

Of course, there could be a simpler way around this if someone who knew the deceased person was also in possession of their access password. But that goes against the very grain of having a password in the first place. Usually, most people do leave their passwords with at least someone they trust implicitly. However, do keep in mind that trusting someone with your password is not a foolproof idea.

E-mail is one thing, social network is another ballgame altogether. In fact, many smaller social networks do not have any method of removing a profile. Orkut allows one to request that a profile be removed upon death. If you make such a request, you have to upload a death certificate and Orkut promises to take action within three business days.

Facebook, on the other hand, does not "remove" the profile (it can, if you want) but "memoralises" it. "Memorialising the account removes certain sensitive information and sets privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. The Wall remains so that friends and family can leave posts in remembrance," the company explains. Again, one has to provide proof of death. Both networks allow one to report death through help pages on their sites.

Death is not easy to deal with, but it is a fact of life and like it or not, we will increasingly be dealing with the issues that we discussed in this column as our lives become digitally connected.

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