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Dealing With Digital Legacies After Users Die

Benjamin Stassen took his own life in 2010. His parents thought their 21-year-old son was happy. Since his suicide, they have attempted to learn why he killed himself. Alice and Jay Stassen thought Benjamin's Facebook account might hold clues to his suicide. But the account does not belong to them, nor did it belong to their son. Facebook owns everything in his account. That is what the company says in its user agreement.

Jay Stassen says he found it difficult even to communicate with Facebook. If you search on the home page of Facebook for an email address, a mailing address, a phone number, or a contact person to help, he says, you will find little information. A court ordered the company to let the Stassens see their son's account. But, Facebook has yet to obey the order.

34-year-old Mac Tonnies died in his sleep in 2009. He left behind a lot of online friends, many of whom liked his futuristic blog, "Post-Human Blues." Work on the blog stopped when he died. A short time later, the comments area was filled with unwanted advertising. That angered his friend Dia Sobin. He said the advertising, or spam, dishonored his friend. Lawyer John Boucher stays informed about digital rights and the law. But he admits that he and his wife have signed many user agreements without reading them. He says he would not know how to get information from his wife's accounts if she dies.

Mr. Boucher says he thinks that laws will be written, over time, to deal with these situations. But it will take a long time to be accepted by the states. Some businesses now are offering people a way to control what happens to their online information after they die. One way to do this is to place your online accounts and passwords in a digital storage area. You give the owners of the area orders about which information to destroy and which to give others when you die.

Mark Plattner was one of Mac Tonnies' friends. He recently used a program called Sitesucker to download Mac's blog. He then uploaded a copy of the blog to a new web site under his control. Mark Plattner says we should all plan our own digital legacy. He says "don't be passive -- get to work on your online afterlife now." And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report. You can leave comments about this story at I'm Carolyn Presutti. (Adapted from a radio program broadcast 23Jul2012)