The law tries to answer: Who owns your email or Facebook when you die?


With more and more of our lives being played out online, Minnesota lawmakers met this week to discuss a crucial question: What happens to your Internet accounts when you die?

It's a debate that has been spreading across the country in recent years, as bereaved families find themselves barred from accessing sentimental keepsakes and potentially important information from their loved ones' social media accounts, emails and text messages.

At a state House of Representatives committee hearing Tuesday, Bill and Kristi Anderson spoke in favor of a proposed bill that would give relatives a better chance of accessing accounts belonging to the deceased, according to the House website.

The couple lost their son Jake in December 2013 when the University of Minnesota student was found frozen to death along the Mississippi River. They then found themselves unable to access his final text messages, phone calls or pictures without a search warrant, according to KSTP

"Our cellphones and our social media have become our lifelines," Kristi Anderson said. "These house those photo albums, ledgers, online [banking information], filing cabinets, calendars, and all of your music library. The real question is, whose data is that anyway?"

What the bill proposes

The bill, drafted by the Uniform Law Commission and proposed by DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom, would allow a personal representative of the deceased access to – but not control over – their online accounts.

This would sidestep some of the privacy rules laid out in Internet companies' terms of service agreements that have proven to be restrictive, MPR reports.

Under the proposed law, if a person wishes to prevent access to their online accounts, they would have to specify this in their will.

“It gives account holders the choice of whether your digital assets are preserved, distributed to your heirs, or destroyed,” estate planner Jim Lamm told the committee on Tuesday.

No committee vote was taken Tuesday, but additional hearings will be held, KSTP says. It will have to get out of the committee before the full House can vote on it. Currently, there is no companion bill listed in the Senate.

Some websites already make provisions for the death of their account holders. Facebook, for example, can turn individual accounts into memorial pages, allowing people access to their page and photos based on the account holder's privacy settings, according to Computer World.

MPR reports the motivation to access accounts may not just be sentimental. Some of a deceased person's internet use could be valuable, for example if they have a popular blog or website, or if they have a successful gaming avatar.

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