Two things are certain in life: death and the internet.
With so many day-to-day functions, tasks and memories now taking place online, the question of what will become of your digital legacy – who will preserve, control or delete your accounts when you are gone – has become increasingly important.
Making a plan now can prevent identity theft, preserve documents and records you want saved, and stop your friends and family receiving painful pop-up reminders on social media. But from privacy issues and cybersecurity to copyright, there are many potential hurdles to organising your digital will.
Here’s what you need to know.
What can a person to do organise their digital legacy?
Dr Emily van der Nagel from Monash University says that people should spend some time planning for how their online accounts and identities will be managed after they die.
At a basic level, she says people should think of it like backing up their data. If there are things you want to preserve – for your family, friends or for your own records – it’s best to download a version so that you won’t have to rely on third-party companies.
That could be favourite photos, tweets, blog posts, videos or songs you’ve uploaded.
“A lot of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and in some cases YouTube, offer really good tools for you to download everything that has been part of that platform,” she says. “That is really good practice to do, semi-regularly, say when you are updating your passwords.
“It is worth thinking about how you may want to save this digital content for people who might want to access it after your death. It might be good practice to curate a little bit, set up a folder.”
The reason for doing so is that once you are gone, your family, friends or an executor may find it harder to access your data than they anticipated.
“A lot of platforms have terms of service agreements that prevent other people from logging in to your account,” she says. “Of course that is a privacy thing, especially things like email accounts or social media accounts that include direct messaging. Those messages are considered private for good reason.”
What if I’m the family or friend of someone who has died?
On sites like Facebook, there are options to have people designated as “legacy contacts” who can manage your account after you die. Your executor can then decide whether to leave your account active, delete it, or memorialise it – which can stop it showing up in feeds in insensitive ways.
“The danger is if you don’t do anything, it can impact on the algorithm in an upsetting or unsettling kind of way,” van der Nagel says. “You can get them turning up as people you may know, or nudged about a happy memory that happened a year ago.”
Another way to manage a digital legacy is to create a secure document (either a physical sealed item, a hard drive, or a password-protected cloud drive) that has your accounts, usernames and passwords. Though, van der Nagel warns, you should take all the necessary privacy precautions and only give it to people you trust.
“It’s really important that people are aware that these services exist,” she says. “There are steps you can take before it happens, you don’t want to have to deal with this suddenly and unexpectedly while you are grieving.”
What about email?
“It depends on which platform, but there are ways people can access the accounts of a deceased person,” van der Nagel says. “With Microsoft, which runs Outlook, you can request access to some information in that account and close it. There is an email address set up specifically for that – the Microsoft custodian of records.”
Van der Nagel says that this is similar to letting banks or billing companies know that a person has died, and usually relies on showing a company a death certificate.
But, due to privacy concerns, she says people should be aware they may not gain full access to an account.
“Through email, you can turn off some services, and gain some information. For example if your mother has died you can turn off some services … but you can’t necessarily read every email that she sent.”
Is there a one-stop-shop to set up a ‘digital will’ yourself?
Van der Nagael says that in Victoria, a person can create a digital register through the state trustee.
This is quite an involved process that goes alongside the legal making of a will, but if done right, you can include all your account logins and information.
“You can create a digital register, it doesn’t go in your will, it goes alongside your will. You can basically give all the keys to your lawyer. Now that would be a really daunting option for someone to set up in their 20s, who does not yet own property. In that case, maybe it would be the most practical option to save it in a hard drive and give it to your dad.”
What legal rights do I have? Can these tech companies still use my photos, tweets and more after I die?
The answer is, broadly, yes.
Van der Nagel says that most terms of service for these social media accounts set up licences and rights between an individual person (ie you) and the companies.
For example, it is very possible that a video that you make and put on Youtube does not necessarily go to your family after your death.
“This is more complicated that simply owning a photograph or owning a CD,” she says. “Physical property you are legally allowed to bequeath. Digital property is not that easy in some cases.”
And sites like Instagram usually reserve the right to use your photos to advertise the platform – and this could technically continue after you die.
Can you ask sites to delete accounts or take them down?
“You can in some cases,” van der Nagel says. “It is always easier to do when you have a death certificate. It is an important legal document.
“On Google there is an inactive account manager, so you can set up and add trusted contacts who can go in and shut down your account. For Microsoft you can contact the Microsoft custodian of records.
“Usually you can show the death certificate, show yourself as the executor and put into place the processes they have put in place. This will usually mean shutting down the account rather than gaining access to the account.
But she adds: “It is much easier with Facebook to memorialise accounts than to delete them.
“It is not hard to say that Facebook still wants your data after you are dead. These platforms don’t want to let go of somebody’s account and all the info they have given the platform”.
Several Amazon services – including its website, Prime Video and applications that use Amazon Web Services (AWS) – went down for thousands of users on Tuesday.
Amazon said the outage was probably due to problems related to application programming interface (API), which is a set of protocols for building and integrating application software, Reuters reported.
“We are experiencing API and console issues in the US-East-1 Region,” Amazon said in a report on its service health dashboard, adding that it had identified the cause. By late late afternoon the outage appeared to be partially resolved, with the company saying that it was “working towards full recovery”.
“With the network device issues resolved, we are now working towards recovery of any impaired services,” the company said on the dashboard.
Downdetector showed more than 24,000 incidents of people reporting problems with Amazon. It tracks outages by collating status reports from a number of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform.
The outage was also affecting delivery operations. Amazon’s warehouse operation use AWS and experienced disruptions, spokesperson Richard Rocha told the Washington Post. A Washington state Amazon driver said his facility had been “at a standstill” since Tuesday morning, CNBC reported.
Other services, including Amazon’s Ring security cameras, mobile banking app Chime and robot vacuum cleaner maker iRobot were also facing difficulties, according to their social media pages.
Ring said it was aware of the issue and working to resolve it. “A major Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage is currently impacting our iRobot Home App,” iRobot said on its website.
Other websites and apps affected include the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), language learning provider Duolingo and dating site Tinder, according to Downdetector.
The outage also affected presale tickets for Adele’s upcoming performances in Las Vegas. “Due to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage impacting companies globally, all Adele Verified Fan Presales scheduled for today have been moved to tomorrow to ensure a better experience,” Ticketmaster said on Twitter.
In June, websites including the Guardian, Reddit, Amazon, CNN, PayPal, Spotify, Al Jazeera Media Network and the New York Times were hit by a widespread hour-long outage linked to US-based content delivery network provider Fastly Inc, a smaller rival of AWS.
In July, Amazon experienced a disruption in its online stores service, which lasted for nearly two hours and affected more than 38,000 users.
Users have experienced 27 outages over the past 12 months on Amazon, according to the web tool reviewing website ToolTester.
South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has offered Big Tech some advice on how to make their services suitably resilient, and added an obligation to notify users – in Korean – when they fail.
The guidelines apply to Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Netflix, Naver, Kakao and Wavve. All have been told to improve their response to faults by beefing up preemptive error detection and verification systems, and create back up storage systems that enable quick content recovery.
The guidelines offer methods Big Tech can use to measure user loads, then plan accordingly to ensure their services remain available. Uptime requirements are not spelled out.
Big techs is already rather good at resilience. Google literally wrote the book on site reliability engineering.
The guidelines refer to legislation colloquially known as the “Netflix law” which requires major service outages be reported to the Ministry.
That law builds on another enacted in 2020 that made online content service providers responsible for the quality of their streaming services. It was put in place after a number of outages, including one where notifications of the problem were made on the offending company’s social media site – but only in English.
The new regulations follow South Korean telcos’ recent attempts to have platforms that guzzle their bandwidth pay for the privilege. Mobile carrier SK Broadband took legal action in October of this year, demanding Netflix pitch in some cash for the amount of bandwidth that streaming shows – such as Squid Game – consume.
In response, Netflix pointed at its own free content delivery network, Open Connect, which helps carriers to reduce traffic. Netflix then accused SK Broadband of trying to double up on profits by collecting fees from consumers and content providers at the same time.
For the record, Naver and Kakao pay carriers, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ have at the very least given lip service to the idea.
Korea isn’t the only place where telcos have noticed Big Tech taking up more than its fair share of bandwidth. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) published a letter from ten telco CEOs asking that larger platforms “contribute fairly to network costs”. ®
As part of the acquisition, Quill will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company.
Twitter has acquired the messaging platform Quill, seen as a potential competitor to Slack, in order to improve its messaging tools and services.
Quill announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company to continue its original goal “to make online communication more thoughtful, and more effective, for everyone”.
The purchase of Quill could be linked to Twitter’s new strategy to reduce its reliance on ad revenue and attract paying subscribers.
Twitter’s general manager for core tech, Nick Caldwell, described Quill as a “fresher, more deliberate way to communicate. We’re bringing their experience and creativity to Twitter as we work to make messaging tools like DMs a more useful and expressive way people can have conversations on the service”.
Users of Quill have until 11 December to export their team message history before the servers are fully shut down at 1pm PST (9pm Irish time). The announcement has instructions for users who wish to import their chat history into Slack and states that all active teams will be issued full refunds.
The team thanked its users and said: “We can’t wait to show you what we’ll be working on next.”
Quill was launched in February with the goal to remove the overwhelming aspects of other messaging services and give users a more deliberate and focused form of online chat.
In an online post, Quill creator Ludwig Pettersson said: “We started Quill to increase the quality of human communication. Excited to keep doing just that, at Twitter.”
The company became a potential competitor for Slack, which was bought by Salesforce at the end of 2020 for $27.7bn. The goal of that acquisition was to combine Salesforce’s CRM platform with Slack’s communications tools to create a unified service tailored to digital-led teams around the world.