Family fighting for right to daughter’s online legacy
Published Tuesday, January 8, 2013 11:14AM EST
When someone dies, should their family be allowed to access their email, or their Facebook or Twitter accounts? Or do even the dead have the right to privacy?
Those are the questions a Toronto family has been forced to confront this year as they searched for answers in their teen daughter’s sudden and mysterious death.
Alison Atkins was just 16 when she died this past July. She had struggled for more than five years with ulcerative colitis, a painful colon disease, and had to have a large portion of her colon removed.
As her health declined in her final months, she could no longer attend school and became depressed. So when she died after being found unconscious in bed one morning, one of the first things they wondered was whether Alison had tried to commit suicide.
They wanted to look at her online accounts to see what she was writing about in her final days. But Alison had chosen to block her family members on Facebook, and had set her privacy settings so that they couldn’t read her blog or her email either.
Her family was forced to break a few rules to hack into her digital presence. Three days after Alison’s death, her sister Jaclyn took Alison’s laptop to a friend who cracked into the password-protected computer. That allowed her to automatically log into her sister's Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts too look for the answers to their questions.
“The first site we went to was her Tumblr blog,” Jaclyn told CTV’s Canada AM Tuesday. “That was where she left her deepest thoughts and feelings.”
Jaclyn soon discovered that her sister had planned a date for the day after her unexpected death, was planning to go to a barbecue the following weekend, and was looking forward to a friend’s birthday.
“She had the next three to four days planned out so we knew that she wasn’t making that kind of decision,” Jaclyn said.
“We were lucky we had that to check. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known what was going on in her mind in her last days.”
A coroner later confirmed that Alison had not committed suicide. But by then, the family wanted access to Alison’s accounts for another reason: to keep her memory alive and to give them and her friends a place to remember her.
Alison’s friends had begun posting messages and photos on her Facebook page as soon as they learned of her death. The family was keen to keep the page going. But they knew that it was just a matter of time before the account timed out automatically and logged them out.
By mid-October, that’s exactly what happened. Then, about two weeks later, Alison’s Facebook page disappeared altogether for reasons the family has never been able to figure out. (It’s possible that someone alerted Facebook of Alison’s death).
After submitting a death certificate to Facebook, the page was revived, but only as a memorial. That meant Alison’s existing Facebook friends could still leave comments and photos on the page. But since nobody has permission to edit the account, there is no way to delete any inappropriate comments or photos that might get posted.
Alison’s father Gary Atkins says months after his daughter’s death, he is still fighting with the owners of the other sites she frequented for access to her accounts.
Yahoo and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, say they won't provide families with passwords or control of email accounts, out of concern for the privacy rights of the deceased.
Yahoo recently told The Wall Street Journal that it can’t transfer access to an account unless users provide their written consent before their death, or provide their account information in their estate plans.
Microsoft told the paper that it would not transfer access to an account, although with "appropriate documentation" it could provide next of kin with discs containing email records of the deceased.
Gary Atkins says he understands the right to privacy, but just wants to be able to keep his daughter’s memory alive online.
“I think it’s a big lack of understanding on the part of the people who are doing it,” he said. “I don’t think they’re doing it out of anything malicious but they don’t understand that it’s a place that we all use as a family.”
Jaclyn believes her sister would have understood why her family and friends want to be able to browse through her online history.
“If she were here right now and she were still alive, there would have been no way she would want us reading that. She would have been like, ‘Keep out,’” Jaclyn said.
“But if you believe that after she passed, she’s reflecting on it, she’d be saying, ‘Well, if it brings people here comfort and relief and helps them have closure…’ I think she was the kind of person who could see the whole picture. She would have said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me.’”
Gary Atkins says just as parents need to counsel their kids to be mindful of what they write online to protect their reputations, they should also discuss what they would want to happen if they should pass away.
He says that might mean drafting a sort of “living will” so that family members have the right to access their passwords in the event of a major illness or death.
“Unfortunately, people pass away every day. If I passed away today, how could everybody get into my accounts? So I think what needs to be happening, because so much of our life is online and the digital realm, is we need to address culturally what those rights are,” he says.