When Loren Williams died in a motorcycle crash in 2005, his mother used his Facebook password to read posts on his wall.
“These were postings from personal friends that [said] he meant a lot to them in their lives, and it was very comforting,” Karen Williams told KGW television in Portland, Ore. “There were pictures that I had never seen before of his life and just evidence of the wonderful relationships that he had established.”
But when Facebook learned of Loren Williams’ death, it changed his password and closed the page. His mother got a court order to regain access to the account and get 10 months’ worth of his life on Facebook, KGW reported.
“I wanted full and unobstructed access, and they balked at that,” Williams of Beaverton, Ore., told The Associated Press. “It was heartbreaking. I was a parent grasping at straws to get anything I could get.”
Now, lawmakers in at least two states — Nebraska and Oregon — are considering legislation that would require social networks like Facebook to grant loved ones access to the accounts of family members who have died.
Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2010.
“We have automatically vested in the administrator of an estate the power to act on the behalf of a deceased individual and access these accounts,” Ryan Kiesel, a former Democratic legislator who wrote Oklahoma’s law, tells Morning Edition host David Greene. “That’s not something they have to go to court for. They have that power, just as they have the power to pay debts, to distribute property according to a statute or according to a will. One of their powers in Oklahoma now is to be able to access these online accounts.”
Kiesel said we spend an increasing amount of our lives online — whether it’s paying bills or posting photographs on Flickr or an update on Facebook. The issue, he says, is that these services differ in how they deal with a dead person’s digital life.
“The real issue is that folks really haven’t been thinking about this. And they can have a variety of different outcomes based upon the terms of service from the individual service provider,” he said. “So what happens on Flickr may not be what happens to your account on Facebook and vice versa.”
But the law in Oklahoma has its limitations. For one, Kiesel said, it’s unclear who will win if the terms of service agreements we sign on services such as Facebook and Twitter clash with the state’s law.
“The real takeaway,” he said, “is that we’re trying to start a conversation so that when people are thinking about their will, when they’re thinking about what they want to happen to their property when they pass away, that they begin to consider this mountain of property that they’re leaving behind online.”