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Death and the Internet: How your online identity can live on after death

Death and the Internet: How your online identity can live on after death

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Do you ever wonder what will happen to your email account after you die? What about the hundreds of photos you've stockpiled on Flickr? And will your blog live on, even if no one updates it?

Ever wonder what will happen to your email account after you die? What about the hundreds of photos you've stockpiled on Flickr? And will your blog live on, even if no one updates it?

Sure, it's a morbid subject. But for Lisa Granberg, the issue of planning for one's digital life after death was a problem desperate for a solution. With a co-founder, Granberg developed My WebWill, a Sweden-based web service expected to launch worldwide next month. Along with similar services, such as Legacy Locker and Deathswitch, My WebWill strives to give users a sort of "digital life insurance." I spoke with Granberg last week.

What services will My WebWill provide?

It's a service that allows you to take control of your digital life and your digital accounts after death. You choose what you want to happen with your different sites. You can deactivate or erase accounts. This depends on the site you want to change, of course. For example, on Facebook you can post a last status update, you can change your profile picture, you can erase your wall. All those choices are specific to each site. You can transfer your account details, such as password and username, to someone close to you and leave them instructions if you have more specific wishes.

How will you know when a user has died?

It depends a bit on which country we're talking about. In Sweden, we compare our register once a week to the state-owned register of all people living in Sweden and we get notified if someone has died. In the U.S., we have a system where we use verifiers. When you create your account you choose two people that will inform us about your death. These two people will get an email from us when the person creates the account. We tell them that they've been chosen as verifiers and that we will need a copy of a death certificate when this person eventually dies.

How much will the service cost?

It's $17 a year and $179 for a one-time fee. We have a free account, as well, which only allows you to deactivate and erase accounts.

How did you come up with the idea for this service?

It was actually the other founder, Elin [Tybring]. She attended a workshop in Holland where they had to identify growing problems on the Internet. We felt that this was becoming a big problem. We just couldn't let it go.

Can people sign up for the service now?

People can leave their contact details to show their interest. We've actually gotten several thousand from all over the world: a lot of people from the Middle East, Germany, Austria, U.S., U.K., Brazil.

Why is this service necessary?

The Internet is really young. There are more problems all the time that we haven't thought about before, and this problem of people dying on the Internet is one of them. You have photos on the Internet, it's like a document of your life. Just like your offline life, you might want to keep some things and you might want to hide away some things and you might want to give some things to someone. It's just really taking control of your life, just as you do in the offline life.

Even young people die. They might not be thinking about death, but they're very concerned about keeping their things on the Internet. For a lot of young people, the discussion is more about, "How do I keep my blog if no one logs into it every six months?" I think older people tend to be more willing to erase things on the Internet and younger people want to keep things.

What are the legal issues involved?

It is a bit of a gray zone. It's not really a legal will. We like to compare it more to a digital life insurance. It is definitely a discussion that's needed. It's not really about money; it's more emotional assets. If the individual hasn't taken care of it themselves, their relatives can't do it either because it's password protected.

How do you deal with the issue of password security?

That's been the main focus from the beginning, to find a good solution to the security. We have a both manual and automatic process. Even if someone hacks into the server, you would need a manual key to unlock the information and that manual key is not online. We have it. It's very secure.

Here's a My WebWill video demo:

 

Photo: Lisa Granberg / Courtesy of My WebWill

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure