Archived Story

Editorial: Digital access need change

Published 11:07am Monday, March 18, 2013

Here’s a hypothetical — and, yes, morbid — scenario: You just died. (Hey, “spring ahead” is rough!)

Amid the grieving, your family wants to make sure all your friends know and can pay their respects. But being the technological hipster you, ahem, were, the only place you kept all their contact information was in your cyber-cloud account owned by (Hey, this is hypothetical.)

Nobody, though, knows your account password so your family contacts OutFaceLook for assistance in accessing address books, personal photos, even bank information. (Call them digital assets.)

While the OutFaceLook staff might be kind enough to help, the 1986 federal Stored Communications Act actually requires them to protect your privacy by not providing access to your account to someone other than yourself.

And remember, they can’t see you now.

Welcome to why nobody showed up for your funeral. To say nothing of what might happen to your “digital assets” involving everything from retailers to play lists to photos.

Seriously, the scenario may be a stretch but it goes to the importance of the need for Congress to make a priority of updating the Stored Communications Act.

The March 2 Times news report “In death, Facebook photos could vanish” related this critical-but-underemphasized effort in explaining how Karen Williams of Beaverton, Ore., is fighting an 8-year battle to access the “digital assets” of her 22-year-old son who died in a 2005 motorcycle accident.

As The Associated Press report noted, legislative efforts meant to help people like Williams are facing intense (and understandable) opposition from a technology industry continually trying to make sure identities are protected and accounts not hijacked.

How tough a challenge is this? According to the report, the federal law even trumps those few people who have the foresight to include transferring “digital assets” to others via a last will and testament.

Clearly, steps must be taken to change the law so that accessing address books and photos stored electronically is no different than picking up an address book or photo album at the deceased’s house.

Unfortunately, it appears easier said than done. The Oregon Legislature even sided with Williams by trying to draft legislation. The tech industry objected and now any change will depend on what the Uniform Law Commission decides.

This is a nonprofit, non-partisan group that crafts legislation for states to help standardize laws.

Ideally, its efforts will yield changes Congress can adopt quickly so all your friends can do more than pass along their cyber-sympathies.

— St. Cloud Times, March 11