All Tech Considered
3:00 am
Tue April 3, 2012

Who Has The Right To Our Facebook Accounts Once We Die?

When Loren Williams died in a motorcycle crash in 2005, his mother used his Facebook password to read posts on his wall.

"These were postings from personal friends that [said] he meant a lot to them in their lives, and it was very comforting," Karen Williams told KGW television in Portland, Ore. "There were pictures that I had never seen before of his life and just evidence of the wonderful relationships that he had established."

But when Facebook learned of Loren Williams' death, it changed his password and closed the page. His mother got a court order to regain access to the account and get 10 months' worth of his life on Facebook, KGW reported.

"I wanted full and unobstructed access, and they balked at that," Williams of Beaverton, Ore., told The Associated Press. "It was heartbreaking. I was a parent grasping at straws to get anything I could get."

Now, lawmakers in at least two states — Nebraska and Oregon — are considering legislation that would require social networks like Facebook to grant loved ones access to the accounts of family members who have died.

Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2010.

"We have automatically vested in the administrator of an estate the power to act on the behalf of a deceased individual and access these accounts," Ryan Kiesel, a former Democratic legislator who wrote Oklahoma's law, tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "That's not something they have to go to court for. They have that power, just as they have the power to pay debts, to distribute property according to a statute or according to a will. One of their powers in Oklahoma now is to be able to access these online accounts."

Kiesel said we spend an increasing amount of our lives online — whether it's paying bills or posting photographs on Flickr or an update on Facebook. The issue, he says, is that these services differ in how they deal with a dead person's digital life.

"The real issue is that folks really haven't been thinking about this. And they can have a variety of different outcomes based upon the terms of service from the individual service provider," he said. "So what happens on Flickr may not be what happens to your account on Facebook and vice versa."

But the law in Oklahoma has its limitations. For one, Kiesel said, it's unclear who will win if the terms of service agreements we sign on services such as Facebook and Twitter clash with the state's law.

"The real takeaway," he said, "is that we're trying to start a conversation so that when people are thinking about their will, when they're thinking about what they want to happen to their property when they pass away, that they begin to consider this mountain of property that they're leaving behind online."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Most people have at least thought about what they'll do with their belongings after they die. Many have a formal plan for their estate, everything from the house to bank accounts to photographs and even that shoebox under your bed. But what about a person's digital estate? That's all the stuff you have online. Well, in 2010, Oklahoma became the first state to pass legislation on that very issue. Ryan Kiesel is a former Oklahoma legislator who wrote that state's law. And he joins us.

Good morning.

RYAN KIESEL: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So tell me exactly what we're talking about when we say a digital estate.

KIESEL: Well, I think that as we go about our lives these days, we live more and more online, whether we're paying bills through our bank online, whether we're posting photographs on Flickr, whether we're posting an update on Facebook or checking in on any other number of services and letting folks know what we're doing - we are leaving more and more of our lives online. Not on a hard drive, but even on hard drives and servers that we'll never see in person.

GREENE: Everything that we do, write on Facebook, you know, write on Twitter and tweets and photos that we put on Flickr, what happens to those things now when a user passes away?

KIESEL: You know, I think that it differs from service to service. And that's one of the real issues here, one of the real troubles. I think on Facebook right now there is a process to have a page removed, there's a process where it's turned into a memorial site so that there's limited access for who can post and who can view what.

But the real issue is that folks really haven't been thinking about this. They could have a variety of different outcomes based upon the terms of service from that individual service provider. So, you know, what happens on Flickr may not be what happens to your account on Facebook and vice versa.

GREENE: Well, give me the thumbnail on the law that you crafted when you were a state legislator. I mean, what sort of catch-all rule did it create?

KIESEL: So in Oklahoma what we've done is we have automatically vested in the administrator of an estate the power to act on the behalf of the deceased individual and access these accounts. That's not something that they have to go to court for. They have that power, just as they have the power to pay debts, to distribute property according to a statute or according to a will. One of their powers in Oklahoma now is to be able to access these online accounts.

GREENE: And that would be the executor of an estate. You deal with...

KIESEL: Yeah, the executor or the administrator of an estate. Sure. Yeah.

GREENE: OK. You do the traditional things like pay off debts, but you also have full access to go online and get any of that material?

KIESEL: Right. And there's some question. I haven't personally known of anyone that's tried to use this law in Oklahoma. And I think there's some question as to whether or not when you sign the terms of service agreement - that none of us read, but we all sign to have access to these services to begin with - whether those terms of services, if they conflict with this law, you know, which would win out. There's some question about that.

The real takeaway is that we're trying to start a conversation so that when people are thinking about their will, when they're thinking about what they want to happen to their property when they pass away, that they begin to consider this mountain of property that they're leaving behind online.

GREENE: You said this is the beginning of what could be a very long conversation about how to handle this. Has this spread to other states? Do you have lawmakers who are calling and saying we want to do it in our state, give us some advice?

KIESEL: You know, I haven't visited with lawmakers in other states, but if we look at efforts in other states, I think it's pretty clear that Nebraska in particular what we're seeing is that the laws that they're introducing there are very similar to the laws that we passed here in Oklahoma.

GREENE: Ryan Kiesel, thanks so much for talking to us about this.

KIESEL: Hey, thank you so much for having me.

GREENE: Ryan Kiesel is a former Oklahoma legislator and he joined us on the line from Norman, Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.