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Laws in the United States and elsewhere are vague on the fate of digital rights to online accounts after death, leading to complications and legal wrangling for survivors who want access to the online services of the deceased. Legal experts say it's unclear who owns what in the Internet "cloud," and that in some cases the user agreement for email or social networking sites terminates when a person dies.
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In the case of online photo albums, "those photos are yours and you have a copyright, but the problem is if you upload them to a site like Shutterfly, the property you own is now stuck behind a license," said Nathan Dosch, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in estate planning. "The underlying asset is still owned by you but the access terminates on your death. The same can be said about emails."
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There is no easy answer for handling the issue, say Evan Carroll and John Romano, who operate the blog "The Digital Beyond" and authored the book "Your Digital Afterlife." Some may seek an online service, while others can handle their accounts by creating a spreadsheet or simply having a conversation with their family. But it does require some planning.
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"This is a dirty little uncovered corner of the Web, and we need to realize that if we want to be a digital society we need to be able to deal with digital assets after death," Romano said. From the consumer's point of view, it would be useful to be able to name beneficiaries for accounts, but this could create considerable administrative costs.
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"Google or Facebook aren't built to verify death, and they have too many users," said Dosch, who helped advise the creators of one service called Entrustet. "A lot of the folks in the Internet boom are too young to care, or have an air or invincibility," said Dosch. "As you see more baby boomers nearing retirement and passing away this will become a more pressing issue."