Seriously, Yahoo?

Justin Ellsworth was a 20 years old United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal. 

He served in Iraq and sent his family emails and pictures using his Yahoo account: 

Print screens of emails Justin sent shortly before his death

A picture Justin sent his family from Iraq via email

In November 2004 Justin was killed in Iraq in an act of bravery which awarded him a Bronze Star Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device (V Device). Sadly, Justin did not become posthumously famous following his acts of bravery, but following the media coverage his family's law suit against Yahoo has received, asking for access to his email account (I wrote about this in the 2nd article I wrote for ynet in 2011). The words and pictures he sent and received during his deployment were very meaningful to them after his death. 
A court order in favor of his family was issued following a prolonged legal battle in court. The family did not get his password, but they did receive a copy of the content of his email account on a DVD. Following this court ruling, Yahoo changed their terms of use, making sure this will not happen again: 

Print screen: Yahoo's TOS

According to the current TOS
"No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability: You agree that your Yahoo account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted".
Recently, a committee of experts at the ULC has drafted an act regarding fiduciary access to digital assets. As reported by Jim Lamm of 'Digital Passing': 
"The final version is the result of an active collaboration by Uniform Law Commissioners who were members of the Drafting Committee and over 130 observers who participated in the process, including representatives from The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, the American Bar Association, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, the American Bankers Association, Internet service providers and several of their industry groups, and consumer rights and privacy groups".   
The act was approved in July 2014 at the ULC's Annual Meeting and Delaware was the first state to enact it, in August 2014. I (and other Digital Death colleagues of mine) hope that more states will follow suit soon.  

The essence of this new act is that: 
"...Legally appointed fiduciaries will have the same access to digital assets as they have always had to tangible assets, and the same duty to comply with the account-holder’s instructions".
And Yahoo? 
In September 2014 Yahoo wrote that they are against this new act. 
- Not only do they have such a strict, not-yielding, non-flexible policy regarding not granting posthumous access, they also disapprove of the new act. 
If their argument was that "we wish to maintain the user's privacy after his or her death regardless to his or her wishes", that would have been one thing. But it is another thing when their arguments is that "it should be the user's choice": 

Print screen: Yahoo's Tumbler

Seriously, Yahoo? If the user's choice is so important to you, why don't you launch a service similar to Google's "Inactive Account Manager"? (It's an imperfect service, but it's an important step in the right direction).  
Why don't you force your users to check boxes regarding their wishes for posthumous access, just like you force them to check boxes regarding reading your terms of use? 

Graphics by Nimrod Benzoor
This is my proposal to websites, ISPs and platforms:
force their users to state their wishes 
in case
they will no longer be able to access their account

Why is your default choice - which is also the single, one and only choice - to have the account "terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted"? What if the user would have preferred for his or her loved ones to have access to his or her account after his or her death? If the deceased will pass the password on, they would be doing so in violation of your TOS (although you would probably never find out) and if the manager of his or her estate, a relative or a loved one were to contact you with a request for access, you wouldn't grant it. So how are you respecting the users choices? You're not giving them any!
I agree: some people would prefer for their account to get terminated upon their death. It is a legitimate wish and should be respected. But what about the people who would prefer otherwise? From the results of a survey I held in Israel last year (in collaboration with two other blogs), we've learned that there is no one answer which suits all (sorry, hope to get around to translating the results soon, you can read some of it in a paper I co wrote with Dr. Roey Tzezana and was published in Finland this summer about the gap between ISPs / platforms / websites policies and people's wishes). 

Yahoo, it's true that a user has a right to maintain his or her privacy, but what about his / her right to share


A Solution from Within the Community

My good friend Shiri Yeshua, the talented graphic designer who does the graphic design for Digital Dust (pro-bono), is also a talented fan-fiction writer. 

She brought to my attention a solution found within the fan-fiction community: in the website "Archive of Our Own", in clause B in their Terms of Use, the site offers you a "Fannish next-of-kin" solution: 
"Registered Archive users may designate a fannish next-of-kin. A next-of-kin agreement allows the transfer of content maintenance in the case of a user's permanent incapacitation or death... Both parties to the agreement must be registered users of the Archive"...
What I like about this solution is that you have to leave your creations to be taken care of by a fellow member of the fan-fiction community - you can't leave it to an outsider. I think it is a wise choice as this solution is organic to this unique world of content.

The decision to give control over this content to a fellow fan and not to a family member - who is an outsider to this community - is not due to a wish to deprive a family member of anything. It is because only a member of this community, who is already immersed in this sub-culture, will know how this community works and what is valuable to it, and his or her choices will most likely reflect and respect the wishes and style of the deceased community member.   

May more websites, platforms and service providers come up with organic solutions and let their users know what these solutions are, in a clear, transparent and accessible way (especially in Israel, if I may add). 


Facebook Cruelty. Not an Easy Read, but an Important One: Report

I wrote this post on Monday-Tuesday, July 21st-22nd 2014. I have given a lot of thought to the timing of publishing it. 
On one hand, I would have preferred publishing it only after the fate of the missing soldier, Sgt. Oron Shaul, will be known, as his family is still going through the nightmare of uncertainty. 
On the other hand, reporting these cruel, fake pages and profiles to Facebook can do some good. 
After plenty of deliberation, I decided to post it in Hebrew on Wednesday, July 23rd and in English on Friday, July 25th, for this reason: please report

Until now, the most difficult post to read - and write - in this blog was the ugly side of Digital Death. It tells about real, extremely cruel behaviors of 'Death Trolls': people who target grieving families and bully them online. At the time, I did not imagine it would only be a 'Part One' post, but here I am writing 'Part Two', which seems to be just as difficult to read - and write - and perhaps even more.  

Since news first came out that a soldier is missing, many fake Facebook profiles and pages were created under his name

Printscreen: Izz ad-Din al-Qassam's website

Not knowing if their son is dead or alive, if he has been captured and held in captivity or if his body is missing, his family is probably doing what any of us would have done and are looking for clues online. Extreme cruelty is directed at them as the Facebook search results come up with the following abomination: 

Search results from Monday, July 21st 2014, profiles only: 

The first result is his real profile: 

The real profile is no longer online. 
I hope it has been taken down by his family, as a way to limit access to pictures of his which have been "feeding" the fake profiles and pages

The next two results were fake profiles. In both of them he "works" at Golani - his IDF unit - and in one of them he "lives" in Gaza. Both of them are no loner online either, so I assume they have been reported as fake and taken down by Facebook. 

Search results from Monday, July 21st 2014, pages only: 

When opening a Facebook page, a page category has to be chosen. Further cruelty is presented by these choices, for instance in a page presenting him as a pet. I admit I had tears in my eyes when I saw it: 

Other page category choices have been to present him as a politician: 

A comedian: 

A fictional character: 

And as a public figure: 

Several pages were categorized as community. The first one used the same cover photo as his real profile: 

Search results from Tuesday, July 22nd 2014, pages only 

This time we get a slightly different outcome: 

Looks like some pages have been reported and taken down, while others have gained "likes". 

One page claimed he could "help", but it too has been taken offline since: 

I wish I could believe that person did mean well, but I'm afraid it was just a way to express further cruelty: 

Other pages under his name were used to spread Hamas propaganda, which is why I'm not linking to it. 
Most of the links will become unusable anyway as the pages are reported and taken offline. 

So what can you do? Report 

Write his name in Facebook: Oron Shaul. 
You will come up with search results of pages. 
Once inside a page, there are three dots on the right hand side. Click on them and several options will present themselves. One of them will be "Report": 

After choosing "Report", a new window will come up. Choose one of the available reasons, then click "Continue": 

May his family get out of the hell of uncertainty regarding his fate as soon as possible. 

A sad update: Oron Shaul has been declared as "a soldier killed in action whose burial site is unknown". The pages are still online. Keep reporting, they are being removed. 


Yahoo! Japan Offers a new Digital Death Service

On July 14th 2014, Yahoo! Japan launched a new service: Yahoo! Ending

In the past several years, many websites have popped up, offering services such as leaving messages behind to be sent posthumously and/or services to manage the many online accounts we all leave behind. 
Google was the first company to offer an in-house solution, not via a third-party (although not a complete, whole solution), when it launched its Inactive Account Manager service in April 2013. 
Yahoo! is now the second company to offer an in-house solution, although in Japan only. 

According to a Wall Street Journal blog entry, the service:
"Sends out digital farewell messages and deletes personal data from the Internet corporation’s online system once it is confirmed that the user has passed away".
Other parts of this service include: 
"Helping one prepare for one’s own funeral and providing the basics on writing a last will. Activating the service terminates any billing charged to Yahoo’s digital wallet, and deletes all texts and images one has saved on Yahoo Box online storage. Those who sign up can also create a “memorial space” tribute site that launches after the user’s death is confirmed, where visitors can leave condolences after they learn about the passing. The memorial page can include a bio, photos, video clips, final messages and an invitation to one’s funeral".
 Some of these services require a fee. 

Their signing up slogan is: “If this is your last day of life, are you prepared to leave?” - which is a very good question. 

Yahoo!'s international policy regarding a deceased user is the strictest among all the international websites / platforms / suppliers we all use: 
"Yahoo cannot provide passwords or access to deceased users' accounts, including account content such as email".
Posthumous access will not be granted to anyone, under any circumstances, regardless of their family ties with the deceased. The only thing they do offer is to close his or her account. 

(If you wish for no one to access your account after your death that is absolutely fine and your wish should be respected as it is a legitimate one. However, most people simply do not think about this, and their loved ones are left to ponder if they should enter the many online accounts we leave behind or not, and if yes, how). 

It will be interesting to see now if other companies will follow in Google and Yahoo! footprints and supply their users with in-house solutions, and it will be interesting to see if Yahoo! will offer this new service outside of Japan. 


I Gave a Talk at Google Israel

On Thursday, June 26th 2014, I gave a talk about Death in the Digital Era at Google Israel. 

I thank Paul Solomon, Head of Communications and Public Affairs in Israel, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, for inviting me to give this talk, and I thank Nir Eitan for his kind hospitality and for taking these pics. 

 Vered Shavit lecturing at Google Israel
Pictures taken by: Nir Eitan

Here is the internal email of recommendation which circulated around Google Israel employees: 

Paul Solomon's recommendation


A Paper I Wrote With Dr. Roey Tzezana Was Published in Finland Today

Our paper "Online Legacies: Online Service Providers and the Public – a Clear Gap" was published today in Finland, in Thanatos journal. 

Here is what the editors had to say about this issue: 

Thanatos vol. 3

THEME ISSUE: Death, mourning and the internet: death cultures in web environments

In this spring issue of Thanatos, we portray a wide collection of on-going research from across the globe. Digital technologies – or as in this case mostly internet applications – are being appropriated in various ways to mourn and honor the memory of loved ones and in coping with the difficult emotions caused by loss and bereavement. The current internet, the Web 2.0, can be described as social since the most popular websites currently used focus in the self-produced content of individuals who share pictures, moments, memories and stories of their everyday lives. Experiences related to death – both as a social and cultural moment – are also produced in various ways, such as in memorial websites, memorial videos, memorialised profile pages and shrines in virtual worlds. In this context, the social internet provides solace and comfort despite geographical or time distances, as well as a private space to explore social and cultural taboos, such as abortion or suicide.

The theme issue of Thanatos, “Death, mourning and the internet: death cultures in web environments”, brings together scholars from sociology, anthropology, communication sciences, digital culture, design and psychology in a collection of three articles, three research reports and five research reviews (along with two book reviews), which illuminate fascinating thematics on mourning online.

Thanatos is a peer-reviewed, multi-disciplinary and a scientific web-journal published by the Finnish Death Studies Association. 


I was interviewed to an article published in India

In May 2014, The Hindu Business Line in India published an article titled "I bequeath my passwords to…". I was interviewed to it: 

Reading it, you might get the wrong impression, as if I recommended Legacy Locker, which of course I have not: both because I refrain from recommending any specific company/site and because Legacy Locker no longer exists: it is a part of PasswordBox since 2013. 

Recently another article was published in India in this regard: Concept of a digital will to pass on online assets is yet to catch on in the country. I'm glad to see awareness to this issue is rising there as well. 

I thank my UK colleague, Stacey Pitsillides, for referring the journalist to me.