The pleasures and horrors of the digital afterlife

Some people don’t log out even after they shuffle out of this mortal coil. The ethics, business and eerie effects of the digital spectre
Online immortality
Never-ending story: Kongposh Bazaz maintains the Facebook account of his deceased son, Yousmann Bazaz, who was 19 at the time of his death in 2012 (Photo: RAUL IRANI)
(Illustration: ANIRBAN GHOSH)
(Illustration: ANIRBAN GHOSH)

We mostly either burn or bury our dead, falling back on centuries-old rituals and procedures laid down by religion and law, to respectfully mourn our deceased. We leave behind, either through legal wills or social convention, our material possessions to our heirs. But what happens to our digital presence—the heirlooms that are social media accounts, emails, online avatars and blogs? What happens to the 24.1 million tweets that get sent out on a single night of Super Bowl? What happens to this ocean of data, surging forth every day as images on Flickr, videos on YouTube, blogs, selfies and status updates? Unlike our ancestors, we spend a large part of our lives on the internet, building a lifetime of experience and memories, engaging in conversations, developing and sharing memories, creating and conducting businesses, archiving moments, and making friends and even enemies on the internet. What happens to all that after we die?

There will most certainly be no attic full of relics or shoeboxes of memorabilia for our grandchildren to forage through. There will be no photo albums documenting family history, no letters or journals through which our descendants will attempt to piece together our lives. They will all be online and password-protected. What becomes of these digital footprints after death isn’t just a philosophical wrinkle of modern life, because we have created an internet version of ourselves that is arguably no less real than the lives we lead offline.

It is a strange twenty-first century question that emerges from this wired world—when we shuffle off this mortal coil, will our digital personas forever haunt the World Wide Web like spectral beings, or will we arrive at a solution that will allow us to log out respectfully?

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The news of Sunil K Poolani’s death from cardiac arrest in July 2011 came as a shock to many of his friends and acquaintances. A former journalist who had founded a publishing house, Frog Books, he was only 41 at the time of his demise.

Poolani lived alone in Mumbai, having separated from his wife. According to friends, he was a loner and an alcoholic with a large circle of friends on Facebook (numbering over 2,000). The night of his death, his friends say, his brother from Kerala was visiting him. Like most others, Pradnya Malushte, a friend of Poolani’s, learnt of his death a few days later when people began to share the news on Facebook. “I had never met him. Just spoken with him on the phone for work and exchanged a few conversations on Facebook. But it was very depressing to hear the news. He was too young to die this way,” she says. About a month later, Malushte, who runs a cosmetic consultancy called Sparsh Organics in Pune, awoke one morning and logged onto Facebook to find a message from Poolani. “I was too shocked to react for a few minutes. I don’t recall what that message said, but I remembering feeling creepy,” she says. She replied to the message asking whoever it was posing as Poolani to respect the dead and to stop doing so.

It was not just Malushte. For the next few years, until last week when his Facebook account mysteriously disappeared— in all probability deactivated or deleted— Poolani’s Facebook account sent out messages to friends, posted status updates, ‘liked’ and commented on posts. The writer and poet John P Matthew, who was a friend of Poolani, says, “I thought his death had been a prank when I started seeing him active on Facebook. But then when you read the status updates and posts, you could tell it wasn’t Poolani. Someone was misusing his account.”

Poolani’s Frog Books was a vanity publishing house, where authors paid to get their books published. According to Matthew, a few months before his demise, Poolani told him that a few authors who had published their books with him were upset that their books had had poor sales. Matthew believes that one or a few of them might have hacked his account and started using it in spite. “Otherwise it makes no sense. Poolani lived alone, never shared such details with friends or family. It must be one of them,” he says.

Poolani’s digital afterlife might have been hacked into, toyed around for several years, with scant respect for the dead, before suddenly getting deleted and along with it all forms of remembrances—without, in all probability, the permission of a family member. His other online presence, on Twitter and his blog, where he prolifically wrote either book reviews or author interviews, apart from promoting books from his publishing house, still remain. None of them bear any acknowledgement that the author has passed away. “If only,” Matthew says, “Poolani had left behind his user name and password to a friend or family member, we could have done something.”

These concerns about the afterlife of an individual’s online footprint may appear trivial. Why, one might ask, must we offer such importance to our online activity, when much of it appears to be nothing more than a frivolous accumulation of a lifetime of digital debris and rubble? Who cares about the updates or the likes?

But as Poolani’s case shows, the digital afterlife matters very much. In the case of the internet, and especially social media, where users are ageing and more seniors are increasingly joining, the issue of the digital afterlife becomes more pressing. According to some estimates—for instance Randall Munroe’s popular What If blog—based on the site’s growth rate and the age breakdown of users, there are at least between 10 and 20 million dead people with Facebook profiles. By 2065, it is estimated that the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook.

What makes the issue complicated is that some of the most popular internet services don’t quite encourage users to think about these subjects. Policies vary widely, and often they lie deeply hidden in Terms of Service agreements. As these internet services increasingly face this issue, and learn how inept their policies are, the Terms of Service agreements are continuously reworked and amended. Currently, Facebook allows friends and family to either ‘memorialise’ an account—which ensures that such profiles do not emerge as friend suggestions on Facebook or list out birthdays, instead converting the page into a place where friends can grieve and post recollections— or delete it altogether. No family or friend is provided the password, and sometimes when family members have somehow acquired it, there have been reported instances of Facebook deleting the account of its own volition. Earlier, Facebook ensured that privacy controls of memorialised accounts were reset, so that an account and its content were visible only to friends, but earlier this year they altered it making the visibility of a person’s content as-is, or in the manner the individual last used the account. In a post on 21 February this year, Facebook explained this decision, stating, ‘This will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person’s expectations of privacy. We are respecting the choices a person made in life while giving their extended community of family and friends ongoing visibility to the same content they could always see.’

Google, on the other hand, started the Inactive Account Manager feature last year, which enables Google users to either delete their account or nominate individuals who will gain access to it if they die or are incapacitated. However, in case people don’t sign up for this feature, a long drawn out bureaucratic rigmarole begins, where an individual has to request for his/her family member’s account by supplying among others the death certificate, proof of relation, and an order from a US court. The likes of Twitter and Yahoo, when they learn of a deactivated account, immediately shut down the account. Facebook and Twitter refused to comment for this article. Google India’s spokesperson Gaurav Bhaskar says, via email, “This feature (Inactive Account Manager) was launched last April to help people to get thinking about planning for their digital afterlife, just as they would for their physical assets in the real world. The feature makes it easy for users to tell Google what they want done with their digital assets when they die or can no longer use their account.” A Facebook post in 2009 explains how the company decided to introduce memorials. In 2005, when Facebook was still a small company of only about 40 employees, one of them died in a bicycling accident. Max Kelly, the author, Facebook’s then designated security chief, wrote, “The question soon came up: What do we do about his Facebook profile? We had never really thought about this before in such a personal way. Obviously, we wanted to be able to model people’s relationships on Facebook, but how do you deal with an interaction with someone who is no longer able to log on?

When someone leaves us, they don’t leave our memories or our social network.”

Many individuals, however, do not trust companies to make the right decision and prefer holding the account of a deceased family member by themselves. Kongposh Bazaz, the director of Kongposh publications, which offers a bouquet of pharmaceutical publications, maintains the Facebook account of his deceased son, Yousmann Bazaz. Yousmann, who was 19 at the time of his death in 2012, died near his college premises when a vehicle hit him. Kongposh uses his son’s account to put up pictures and status updates so his friends and relatives can continue to remember him. “It is something Yousmann would have liked done,” Kongposh says.

During his lifetime, Kongposh remembers, Yousmann never accepted his father’s Facebook friend request. Later, as Yousmann lay in hospital for over a week, certain of not making it through, and too incapacitated to speak, Kongposh learned of the outpouring of grief on Yousmann’s Facebook account. Kongposh wanted to speak to his son’s friends, on his behalf, telling them to remain strong. But he remained unsuccessful in his attempt to find his son’s Facebook password, until a friend whom Yousmann had shared his password with, passed it on to Kongposh.

“I’ve maintained both my son’s Facebook account and his BBM (Blackberry messenger service). These two help those of us who were close to him remember him,” he says. Among Yousmann’s list of Facebook friends, one can now also see Kongposh.

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In India, as the concern over one’s online presence grows, a growing group of people now include their digital assets as part of their wills. The likes of Sandeep Nerlekar, the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Terentia, a Mumbai-based estate planning firm, advises clients to draw up a digital will and to appoint a ‘digital executor’ who is entrusted with a list of logins and passwords, and to outline explicit instructions in their estate plans on who has access to what accounts. According to Nerlekar, most of those who have created digital wills are corporate heads with large online assets. “We draw up a digital will for them, along with a regular succession will. And digital wills secure not just important corporate data and contacts stored in their computers and emails, but also their social media accounts and personal emails,” Nerlekar explains.

According to Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert in Delhi, “Every time a person dies, hundreds of gigabytes of data and content are irretrievably lost with him. In the past three years or so, as people have come to realise this, we have seen people creating digital wills. But this is few and far between.” Duggal acknowledges that very few potential customers are forward-looking enough to see how valuable, financially and sentimentally, their digital assets can be. So far, he claims, he has helped draw out digital wills for a number of corporate heads, writers, musicians and software professionals, many of whom have stored away valuable work on the internet and the hard drive of their computers.

Gurpreet Singh, the managing partner and internet law head of Delhi-based Amarjit & Associates, however, points out that digital wills have no legal precedents in India. “Some people in India have started creating digital wills, which is all good, but neither the Information Technology Act of 2000, nor the inheritance laws (Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and Indian Succession Act, 1925) makes provisions for digital wills. Also, so far, there have been no cases in an Indian court of law where such a will has been deliberated upon,” he says. “It is a good option to plan such a will but nobody knows if it has legal sanctity. Nobody knows what will happen when a will clashes with the providers’ terms of service. What happens when the digital executor is in one country and the data in another?”

In the US, however, a number of litigations have emerged that are making both internet services and lawmakers reconsider their policies for the dead online. The most famous among them being the case of the family of Justin Ellsworth—a US marine killed in Iraq—who took Yahoo! to court in 2004 because the internet giant refused to give the family access to the deceased’s email account. Eventually, the court ordered Yahoo! to give the family a CD of Ellsworth’s e-mails. In the US state of Virginia, the unexplained suicide of a 15-year-old boy, Eric Rash, in 2011, and his parent’s search for answers, including seeking access to their son’s Facebook account, has led the state’s lawmakers to frame a law that allows parents of a deceased child to gain access to the minor’s online accounts. Facebook had famously denied the Rash family’s request to access their son’s Facebook account. Currently, a handful of US states like Idaho have in place ‘digital asset laws’ that govern the inheritance of online assets like blogs, e-mail passwords and other digital accounts.

Evan Carroll, the US-based co-founder and author of The Digital Beyond, a blog that fashions itself as a think tank for digital death and legacy issues, says over email, “In the future, I anticipate that we won’t have to pay special attention to digital assets as a part of the estate planning process. As our social norms and laws catch up to our digital lifestyles, dealing with our digital afterlife will be much like dealing with our tangible property, in that everyone understands how to handle it properly.”

Explaining how the blog emerged in 2009—after the founders, John Romano along with Carroll, realised how the mementos we cared about from our families were very different from the digital ones we were creating— and later developed into a book, Your Digital Afterlife, Carroll says, “We believe it’s important for individuals to plan what should happen to their digital assets, including online accounts, once they’re gone. We recommend that individuals take an inventory of their online accounts and make sure that they’ve planned a way for their heirs to access the most important ones... Sometimes a simple conversation with them can be sufficient. Other times you might want to use an online service… to store your passwords and pass them along when you’re gone. You may even feel the need to incorporate power over your digital assets into your will.”

There has also emerged in the West, a whole new category of entrepreneurs trying to build new businesses around digital-afterlife management. Digital caretakers like Legacy Locker and Entrustnet allow users to nominate an ‘executor’ who will act out their digital wishes after death, including passing on account information to designated heirs. Life.Vu offers online memorial pages for those who have passed away and Deathswitch sends personalised messages to pre-selected contacts. There is also Eterni.me, an under-development service that stores data from social media sites and e-mails, allowing the user to add to this material, which when the user dies contacts a list of pre-selected individuals and gives them access to his account. This service will also reportedly include a 3-D digital avatar, designed to resemble the user, and that will, from the data of stored information, emulate the user’s personality and communicate with his friends and family.

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The Internet is in many ways still very new, and our lives on it, even more recent. Estate laws and internet services are just now beginning to consider the topic of our digital afterlives. And even while we, as a society, might have somewhat developed the customs and mores necessary for online co-existence, we are yet to fashion those on how to deal with death online.

In the case of Nimesh Tanna, a talented 22-year-old photographer whose dead body was discovered on the railway tracks in Mumbai in 2011—dead possibly from an accident— his Facebook account has come to be managed by his mother and a few close friends. Apart from starting a trust in his name through which they distribute food to the underprivileged in Mulund and Thane suburbs of Mumbai, and a few Facebook pages through which they share his work, his mother and friends use his personal account to post his pictures. Facebook rules, as vague as they are, do not allow this. And many find this disconcerting.

Tanna’s mother, Damyanti Tanna, however, who probably has most say in this matter since she was closest to her son, and because he shared his password details with her, says, “I think he would have wanted his Facebook page to go on, for people to share his work and for his friends to remember him.”

Some of Nimesh’s Facebook friends, like Ankit Mehrotra, who finds the use of a dead individual’s account upsetting and has raised this issue on Nimesh’s Facebook Wall, says, “Perhaps those using the account have their reasons, and in all probability theirs is more valid since they were closer to him, but I found the whole idea of assuming his virtual persona disturbing. You feel very strange when you log on to Facebook and you read Nimesh speaking through his Wall. It freaks you out.” Currently, Damyanti is going through Nimesh’s data stored on his computer and on CDs, trying to locate his work. Damyanti says, “He left behind his passwords but I don’t know where all his work is stored. He would have wanted us to find his work and to share them with his friends.”

In the case of Humaira (name changed on request), a manager with a multi-national bank, after her husband died in 2011 to a cardiac arrest and a family dispute erupted where she was asked by her in-laws to leave the house, some started using her husband’s Facebook Wall to write about the treatment being meted out to Humaira. “Until then I was fine with the presence of my husband’s Facebook profile, much of which was being used to grieve. But I didn’t want any of this to be out in the public,” she says. She went though her husband’s diaries and journals to find if he had left behind the password, until eventually a friend of her husband who knew the password shared it with her. “He wanted me to delete it. And I thought I would delete it too. But I just couldn’t get around to doing it. So I changed the settings to ensure that no one can write on the wall,” she says.

Achuthan Kannan, a digital media consultant, says, “There is lot of confusion over who owns what people say or do online—do Facebook and Google own it or does the user? There is no clarity on what they will do with this content when we die. In such a situation, it is best to write down one’s online assets and passwords and provide it to the next of kin.”

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In the last three years, three of my friends, whom I knew since childhood, have passed away. These three just lie dormant on Facebook occupying a vague piece of digital real estate, completely forgotten until someone tags them in an old undated photo when they were alive or in a mirthful comment about how they pine for the monsoon. Their Facebook Timelines begin with their birth, feature their various career and personal achievements, put out their various photographs and likes and preferences, but there is no mention of an end. No stating that this timeline has now closed and its owner is no more. Sometimes people wish them happy birthday, and sometimes you realise people don’t even know, or have forgotten, that the individual is long gone.

What do you do with them? What will happen to them? Is this what they mean by immortality? I reported one of the accounts, whose owner died three years ago, for his account to be memorialised. But a week has gone by and neither has Facebook memorialised it nor cared to explain. And I know, through other friends, that this dead friend is still being shuffled around through Facebook’s social algorithms.