Death and the internet



A recent extension to the cultural relationship with death is the increasing number of people who die having created a large amount of digital content, such as social media profiles, that will remain after death. This may result in concern and confusion, because of automated features of dormant accounts (e.g. birthday reminders), uncertainty of the deceased's preferences that profiles be deleted or left as a memorial, and whether information that may violate the deceased's privacy (such as email or browser history) should be made accessible to family. Issues with how this information is sensitively dealt with are further complicated as it may belong to the service provider (not the deceased) and many do not have clear policies on what happens to the accounts of deceased users. While some sites, including
Facebook Facebook is an online social media and social networking service owned by American company Meta Platforms. Founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with fellow Harvard College students and roommates Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Mosk ...
Twitter Twitter is an online social media and social networking service owned and operated by American company Twitter, Inc., on which users post and interact with 280-character-long messages known as "tweets". Registered users can post, like, and ...
, have policies related to death, others remain dormant until deleted due to inactivity or transferred to family or friends. The FADA (Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) was set in place to make it possible to transfer digital possessions legally. More broadly, the heavy increase in social media use is affecting cultural practices surrounding death. "Virtual funerals" and other forms of previously physical memorabilia are being introduced into the digital world, complete with public details of a person's life and death.


Gmail Gmail is a free email service provided by Google. As of 2019, it had 1.5 billion active users worldwide. A user typically accesses Gmail in a web browser or the official mobile app. Google also supports the use of email clients via the PO ...
Hotmail is a webmail service that is part of the Microsoft 365 product family. It offers mail, Calendaring software, calendaring, Address book, contacts, and Task management, tasks services. Founded in 1996 by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smit ...
allow the email accounts of the deceased to be accessed provided certain requirements are met. Yahoo! Mail will not provide access, citing the No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability clause in the
Yahoo! Yahoo! (, styled yahoo''!'' in its logo) is an American web services provider. It is headquartered in Sunnyvale, California and operated by the namesake company Yahoo Inc., which is 90% owned by investment funds managed by Apollo Global Manag ...
terms of service. In 2005, Yahoo! was ordered by the Probate Court of Oakland County, Michigan, to release emails of deceased US Marine Justin Ellsworth to his father, John Ellsworth.

By website



In its early days, Facebook used to delete profiles of dead people, but does not anymore. In October 2009, the company introduced "memorial pages" in response to multiple user requests related to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. After receiving a proof of death via a special form, the profile would be converted into a tribute page with minimal personal details, where friends and family members could share their grief. In February 2015, Facebook allowed users to appoint a friend or family member as a "legacy contact" with the rights to manage their page after death. It also gave Facebook users an option to have their account permanently deleted when they die. As of January 2019, all 3 options were active.


In 2013,
BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, Inc. is an American Internet media, news and entertainment company with a focus on digital media. Based in New York City, BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti and John S. Johnson III to focus on tracking viral content. K ...
criticized Facebook for the lack of control over memorialization that resulted in a "Facebook death"
prank A practical joke, or prank, is a mischievous trick played on someone, generally causing the victim to experience embarrassment, perplexity, confusion, or discomfort.Marsh, Moira. 2015. ''Practically Joking''. Logan: Utah State University Press. ...
aimed at locking users out of their own accounts. In 2017,
Reuters Reuters ( ) is a news agency owned by Thomson Reuters Corporation. It employs around 2,500 journalists and 600 photojournalists in about 200 locations worldwide. Reuters is one of the largest news agencies in the world. The agency was establ ...
reported that a German court rejected a mother's demand to access her deceased daughter's memorialized account stating that the right to private telecommunications outweighed the right to inheritance. In July 2018,
Dubai Dubai (, ; ar, دبي, translit=Dubayy, , ) is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the capital of the Emirate of Dubai, the most populated of the 7 emirates of the United Arab Emirates.The Government and Politics of ...
's DIFC Courts ruling clarified that Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts should be
bequeathed A bequest is property given by will. Historically, the term ''bequest'' was used for personal property given by will and ''deviser'' for real property. Today, the two words are used interchangeably. The word ''bequeath'' is a verb form for the ac ...
in legally binding will. Social media networks have also been criticized for not responding to relatives' requests to alter information on memorialized accounts. Another criticism is that Facebook users often are unaware that their content is ultimately owned not by them, but by
Facebook Facebook is an online social media and social networking service owned by American company Meta Platforms. Founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with fellow Harvard College students and roommates Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Mosk ...



Dropbox determines inactive accounts by looking at sign-ins, file shares, and file activity over the previous 12 months. Once an account is determined inactive, Dropbox deletes the files on the account. To request access to the account of a deceased person, heirs are required to send appropriate documents by physical
mail The mail or post is a system for physically transporting postcards, letters, and parcels. A postal service can be private or public, though many governments place restrictions on private systems. Since the mid-19th century, national postal sys ...



In April 2013, Google announced the creation of the 'Inactive Account Manager', which allows users of Google services to set up a process in which ownership and control of inactive accounts is transferred to a delegated user. Google also allows users to submit a range of requests regarding accounts belonging to deceased users. Google works with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to be deceased, and in certain circumstances may also provide content from a deceased user's account.



Until 2010,
Twitter Twitter is an online social media and social networking service owned and operated by American company Twitter, Inc., on which users post and interact with 280-character-long messages known as "tweets". Registered users can post, like, and ...
(launched in July 2006) did not have a policy on handling deceased user accounts, and simply deleted timelines of deceased users. In August 2010, Twitter allowed memorialization of accounts upon request from family members, and also provided them with an option of either deleting the account or obtaining a permanent backup of the deceased user's public tweets. In 2014, Twitter updated its policy to include an option to delete deceased user photographs. This policy was implemented after multiple Twitter trolls sent Zelda Williams, daughter of
Robin Williams Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951August 11, 2014) was an American actor and comedian. Known for his improvisational skills and the wide variety of characters he created on the spur of the moment and portrayed on film, in dramas and comed ...
photoshopped Photograph manipulation involves the transformation or alteration of a photograph using various methods and techniques to achieve desired results. Some photograph manipulations are considered to be skillful artwork, while others are consider ...
images of her father. As of January 2019, the only option that Twitter offered for the accounts of dead people was account deactivation. Previously published content is not removed. To deactivate an account Twitter requires an immediate family member to present a copy of their ID and a death certificate of the deceased. Twitter specified that it does not provide account access to anyone, but does allow people having account login information to continue posting. A prominent example is
Roger Ebert Roger Joseph Ebert (; June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013) was an American film critic, film historian, journalist, screenwriter, and author. He was a film critic for the ''Chicago Sun-Times'' from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, Ebert beca ...
's account maintained by his wife Chaz.


In 2012,
The Next Web TNW (The Next Web) is a website and annual series of conferences focused on new technology and start-up companies in Europe. The Next Web company was established in 2006 by co-founders Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive in Amster ...
columnist Martin Bryant noticed that since Twitter, unlike Facebook, did not have a "one account per real person" emphasis, memorializing accounts presented a difficulty to the service. He also criticized the service for the lack of control over hacking of such accounts and disapproved the practice of passing dead people's usernames to new owners after a certain period of inactivity. In 2013, ''Variety'' ran a feature about
Cory Monteith Cory Allan Michael Monteith (; May 11, 1982 July 13, 2013) was a Canadian actor and musician who played Finn Hudson on the Fox television series '' Glee''. As an actor based in British Columbia, Monteith had minor roles on television series bef ...
's Twitter account that had 1.5 million followers at the moment on his death and gained almost 1 million new followers afterwards. Monteith's fans also launched #DontDeleteCorysTwitter campaign. As of January 2019, the celebrity's account had 1.64 million followers. Various media reported awkward incidents related to automatic posting and account hacking.



iCloud and iTunes accounts are "non transferable" since the content is not owned — users only have a licence to access it.


Users who have made at least several hundred edits or are otherwise known for substantial contributions to
Wikipedia Wikipedia is a Multilingualism, multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of online volunteering, volunteers, known as Wikipedians, through open collaboration and using a wiki-based editing system. Wikipedia ...
can be noted at a central memorial page. Wikipedia user pages are ordinarily fully edit-protected after the user has died, to prevent vandalism.


YouTube YouTube is a global online video sharing and social media platform headquartered in San Bruno, California. It was launched on February 14, 2005, by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim. It is owned by Google, and is the second most ...
grants access to accounts of deceased persons under certain conditions. It is one of the data options that one can select to give access to a trusted contact with Google's Inactive Account Manager.



As of the
COVID-19 Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by a virus, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The first known case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The disease quick ...
Instagram Instagram is a photo and video sharing social networking service owned by American company Meta Platforms. The app allows users to upload media that can be edited with filters and organized by hashtags and geographical tagging. Posts can ...
has notified its users of a delay in time of reviewing reports of deceased users due to the limited staff the pandemic has caused. Users that submit a report on a deceased user on Instagram can either memorialize the account or remove it from Instagram's platform. Through memorializing the account, Instagram secures and protects a platform of a deceased user, but per their policy, they do not supply any of the login credentials to the account.For both memorializing or removing a deceased users account, a verified user needs to submit a tangible document that shows proof of death of the user. However, to fully remove an account, the user must be a close or direct family member to the deceased person, and show proof of
credibility Credibility comprises the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message. Credibility dates back to Aristotle theory of Rhetoric. Aristotle defines rhetoric as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive i ...
as well.



Microsoft Microsoft Corporation is an American multinational technology corporation producing computer software, consumer electronics, personal computers, and related services headquartered at the Microsoft Redmond campus located in Redmond, Washi ...
's policies, they do not supply any of the login credentials to a deceased user's Microsoft account. A user does not have to contact or notify Microsoft of the deceased user, as the related user is able to close the account themselves. At default, Microsoft removes accounts after 2 years of inactivity. If the user does not have access to the deceased user's account, Microsoft recommends that the user deletes all bank accounts linked to the one of the diseased to ensure no subscriptions are still going through. If the user wants to request to gain access to the deceased user's account, a court order or a
subpoena A subpoena (; also subpœna, supenna or subpena) or witness summons is a writ issued by a government agency, most often a court, to compel testimony by a witness or production of evidence under a penalty for failure. There are two common types of ...
has to be provided to Microsoft, but does not guarantee access to the deceased user's account. For users that live in
Germany Germany,, officially the Federal Republic of Germany, is a country in Central Europe. It is the second most populous country in Europe after Russia, and the most populous member state of the European Union. Germany is situated betwee ...
, more documentation is needed to gain access of a deceased user's account, including the deceased user's death certificate, a form of ID, and a documentation of consent from the deceased. The requesting user needs to provide a form of ID as well.

Digital inheritance

''Digital inheritance'' is the process of handing over personal
digital assets A digital asset is anything that exists only in digital form and comes with a distinct usage right. Data that do not possess that right are not considered assets. ''Digital assets'' include but are not exclusive to: digital documents, audible ...
to human
beneficiaries A beneficiary (also, in trust law, '' cestui que use'') in the broadest sense is a natural person or other legal entity who receives money or other benefits from a benefactor. For example, the beneficiary of a life insurance policy is the perso ...
. These digital assets include
digital estate Digital inheritance is the passing down of digital assets to designated (or undesignated) beneficiaries after a person’s death as part of the estate of the deceased. The process includes understanding what digital assets exist and navigating the ...
s and the right to use them. It may include bank accounts, writings, photographs, and social interactions. There are several services which store account passwords and send them to selected individuals after death. Some of these periodically send the customer an email to confirm that that person is still alive; after failure to respond to multiple emails, the service provider assumes that the person has died and will thereafter distribute the passwords as arranged. The ''Data Inheritance'' function from SecureSafe gives an "activator code" that the customer transfers to a trusted individual, and in the event of death that individual enters the code into Secure Safe's system to get access to the deceased person's digital inheritance. Legacy Locker an
require two persons to confirm the death, together with the presentation of a death certificate, before any passwords are distributed. Aimed at those concerned with their online privacy, platforms like LifeBank store a customer's Internet account passwords offline while ensuring that a trusted person is given permission to access the stored passwords upon the customer's death. In July 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that an Evernote document the decedent had typed into his phone shortly before committing suicide was enforceable as valid will.

See also

* Digital immortality * Digital preservation * *
Online identity Internet identity (IID), also online identity or internet persona, is a social identity that an Internet user establishes in online communities and websites. It may also be an actively constructed presentation of oneself. Although some people choo ...
* Thanatosensitivity


Further reading

*Michael Massimi; Andrea Charise (2009).
Dying, death, and mortality: Towards thanatosensitivity in HCI
. Proc. CHI 2009 Extended Abstracts, 2459–2468. Retrieved 2012–02. *Silver, Paul (2009-02)
"Death and Social Media"
Paul Silver's Blog. Retrieved 2010-04-20. *Wolf, Nadine (2010-04)
"The digital afterlife: what happens in social media when we die? Part I"
Topics In Digital Media Spring 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-20 * *Wilks, Yorick (2010-10).
Death and the Internet
Prospect Magazine. *El-Hadi, Nehal (2017).
Death Undone
. The New Inquiry. {{Death Cultural aspects of death Social media Internet culture Digital preservation Terms of service