Frequently Asked Questions

"What is a data directive feature?"

Data directive features are product offerings that allow a user to specify how they want their online account to be handled after their death. We classify data directives into three categories:

1. Deactivation: The account is closed and the assets are no longer available.  For some platforms, it may be desirable to offer a mechanism to transfer assets (for examples,e.g. photos or cryptocurrency) to a steward or legal executor before closing the account.
   

2. Memorialization: The account is clearly marked to indicate that the account holder has passed away. The profile may be locked or certain actions may still be allowed to give friends opportunities to mourn on the platform.
   

3. Stewardship: The steward, either determined by the account holder or based on legal rights, has the power to use the account in a limited capacity.  These powers generally do not include the ability to read private messages or impersonate the deceased account holder.

Information about when to implement each of these different features can be found in our free digital directive design toolkit.


"Does my company need a data directive feature?"

At the end of the day, you and your team will know best if your company needs a feature or policy to handle data directives. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you have online accounts or features that allow a user to have a profile on your website, it's pretty likely that at some point, you'll have to handle a deceased user one way or the other.

You may want to consider the sentimental or financial value that a user's account on your platform may have. If you allow users to upload and store documents, videos, photos, messages, emails, or other possible pieces of content, you may want to provide a feature where users can select a contact who is able to access those files in the event of their death, or to give you as the platform owner a directive over which pieces of content they want to have shared.

If your platform offers profiles that other users can view, and those profiles contain information that may be sentimental to the next-of-kin and surviving loved ones, consider a memorialization feature that will allow the deceased user's profile to remain viewable to those who may wish to revisit the profile as part of the grieving process.

Our free digital directive design toolkit can help you explore how to design and implement these features at your company.

"What is the risk of adding these features?"

We aren't lawyers, but we've talked to a few. Your company legal team will be the best people to guide you here, but the TL;DR is that other platforms are already implementing these features, and major government lawsuits have been siding with individuals when it comes to getting access to platform data when a loved one passes away. In fact, even in absence of data directive features, many companies comply with these requests when presented with a court order.

So in that case - why bother doing anything?

Acquiring a court order is a time-consuming strain on people who are already suffering. Imagine spending that time, money, and effort for each of the 300+ accounts that a user may have. Millions of accounts are just being left behind because the bar to access or close them is too high. We think that companies can do a lot to make this process easier by giving users more control before they pass away.

In the absence of posthumous features and policies, it can also be easier for malicious individuals to fake a user's death or to use real information to falsely gain access to an account that they shouldn't be able to access. To get around the fact that platforms don't offer these options, many users choose to share their passwords with a loved one, which creates security concerns while the account holder is still alive.

"Where can I learn more about how my company can implement these features?"

We're software developers, and we get it -- designing and building new features isn't a simple ask. We've put together a free online toolkit that teams can take and adopt to fit their platform. Whether you work directly on a team that is ready to build out new account features, or you want to engage with your company's policy team to get momentum going, the toolkit will help get you started.

© 2020 The Digital Afterlife Project

This project was created and incubated at the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub