How large is your digital footprint? If you pulled together your email account, web site, blog, social networking accounts, and every other virtual identity you have online, just how well known are you on the Internet? Have you ever stopped to consider what happens to your online identity when you die? How would your online friends know? What would happen to your accounts and your content?
As social networking continues to grow in popularity, so too does our individual online identities. No longer are we members of a close knit circle of local friends and family, but members of a global social circle that breaks geographical barriers. Our friends are now all over the world as opposed to all over the community. Our business partners, customers, and professional peers are no longer found in the office, but across the Internet as a whole.
It may be considered a morbid subject, but planning for your digital life after death, and how your virtual affairs should be handled, is fast becoming just as important as the financial and business affairs we consider common matters for estate planning. Virtual property, just as real property, has equitable value that may be lost when you die. Registered domains, web sites, and the contents of an email inbox, these are all types of virtual property that we simply fail to take into account when planning how our estates and property are to be handled.
When assessing your post-mortem digital footprint, as part as your overall online identity management, there are several key areas to keep in mind.
Registered Domains. If you own a domain that is part of a known or popular brand, do you want your brand to disappear upon your death? If not, you need to determine who will take ownership of the domains and how that will be done legally.
Websites and Intellectual Property. As the owner of a website and associated intellectual works, keep in mind that your website will require maintenance and funding if it is to remain online. Who will take over operations? Will someone continue to pay for hosting?
PayPal, eBay, and other sources of online revenue. If you do business online, maintain some type of charitable contribution system, or handle any other type of online revenue stream, who will assume those accounts and the associated funds? Will your online store or auctions be maintained, and if so, by whom? If funds are currently in your accounts, what happens to those funds?
Social Networking, Online Profiles, and Email. While most of these accounts will simply expire due to inactivity, you should consider the online friends and social circles you participated in. Will you have someone spread word of your passing? Will you remove your accounts, or have someone update your status for a final time?
Before you can plan for how your online identity is managed after you are gone, you must first determine the size of your digital footprint. How many accounts do you own, what services do you use, and where do you store digital assets or intellectual property? Start by compiling a complete list of your accounts, including passwords (making this the perfect opportunity to also assess your personal online security posture.) Note the type of accounts, and what important information you have stored in each.
Once you have a list of online assets, you can begin to plan how each account will be managed. One of the simplest methods is to prepare a formal document, similar to a will, with the list of accounts, passwords, and instructions for each account. While this in itself is not a legally executable document, you can ask a trusted family member or friend to ensure your instructions are carried out upon your death, or incorporate this as a component of a legal will.
Keep in mind, the Terms of Service for many online services strictly forbids the sharing of your account information, or access to your account by anyone other than yourself. By providing someone else with access to your account, you may be violating the terms of service, but an argument can be made that your documented instructions constitute the equivalent of granting a Power of Attorney to someone, and therefore legal. Depending on the types of accounts and the information contained in each, you may want to have an attorney assist in drafting your instructions to ensure they are legally enforceable.
In addition, several leading services, such as Yahoo, for example, have strict Terms of Service and will permanently delete all of your accounts and associated data upon notice of your death. Before formally notifying such services of your death, all data should be retrieved and securely stored as part of your instructions. As part of your planning, take the time to familiarize yourself with the Terms of Service for each online service on your list, noting any that may require special handling prior to notification.
There are also several commercial services available online that, upon notification of your death, can modify, transfer or erase your online accounts, send final email messages, pass on important files, and take other actions on your behalf. LifeEnsured, Entrustet, and LegacyLocker are examples of services that help to manage your online assets in the event of your disability or death.
Lastly, there is the option of doing nothing at all. Your inbox will continue to accumulate new mail until it reaches the mailbox size limit. Your online status updates, tweets, and latest blog posts will cease to change. Your registered domains will eventually expire, and your web site hosting plans will go unpaid and at some point will be removed. Your online friends will wonder where you have gone, and eventually they will grow used to not seeing your online status icon anymore. Your digital footprint will slowly, but inevitably, shrink until your online existence disappears altogether. For those of us who have published online content, references to our work will linger online for years, possibly decades, buried beneath mounds of new content provided by the living, until one day those references are gone, as well.
Going without a plan, however, is not a wise decision. Keep in mind that some of the things that are most valuable to people are those they have shared on the web, such as photos and writings. Without a solid plan, what happens to your online assets will depend in large part on the type of asset and where it is stored. In any case, once you are gone it is too late to plan for those assets.
So, what do you want to happen to your online identity and associated data when you pass on? This is the basic question we should all be asking ourselves, and now is the time to plan.
This article is one of a series of articles from DaileyMuse.com on the subject of digital footprints and online identity management. Each article in the series focuses on a different aspect of our interactions in the global Internet community.