What happens to your to your email and other digital content after you die? That question continues to pop up. Back in 2008, I wondered about the issue in a paper called Property, Persona, and Preservation. I noticed a sort of cloud effect. Once we moved email to the web, we were distanced from our creations. For those interested in the theories behind my argument, read the whole paper. But if you want to skip to the policy and application material, skip to part III starting at page 111.
In fact, while I was at Google, Google and a few other email providers started to come up with ways to let heirs access content and to let creators of content signal whether they wanted that work to be shared with heirs. Those solutions tracked some ideas I offered. I am not sure whether the paper was part of their reading but was happy to see the changes. Nonetheless as Pew shows, how we preserve, protect, and control that work will continue to be a problem. The Pew report notes that states and the Uniform Law Commission are starting to come up with laws to address digital estate issues. I will write a follow up to this post, but for now, I offer that any solution should allow Service Providers the ability to set defaults and users to alter them. In short, if someone wants to have an email account for things he or she would rather not have known, the user should be able to click a setting that says “This email account will self-destruct upon the provision of a death certificate.” Now we might want to let an executor verify these wishes and so on rather than relying on Service Provider’s insight or discretion. Still a clear signal about what one wants can be built into how we preserve or destroy our digital history.