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N.H. bill would clarify control of social-networking accounts after death

When you die, what will happen to your Facebook page and Twitter account?

State Rep. Peter Sullivan is hoping to bring some clarity to that murky intersection of estate law and modern life.

Sullivan, a Manchester Democrat, has introduced a bill at the Legislature that would create a legal right for the executor or administrator of a dead person’s estate to take control of their social media and other digital accounts.

“The way we conduct our business as a society and the way our laws regulate how we communicate as a society have not kept up with technology,” Sullivan said.

Right now, there’s no simple answer to the question of how someone’s online accounts are handled after they die, according to The Digital Beyond, a website that addresses issues surrounding “your digital existence and what happens to it after your death.”

Services like Twitter, Gmail and Facebook are all governed by terms of service, but each has different language and procedures. Facebook allows anyone with access to an online obituary to convert the subject’s page to a special memorial page, and immediate family members can request that the page be deleted. Gmail limits any account access to “an authorized representative of the deceased user” following a formal review process.

Since 2005, a handful of states have enacted their own laws dealing with digital assets after death. And the Uniform Law Commission last August appointed a committee to draw up a model law that would “vest fiduciaries with the authority to access, manage, distribute, copy or delete digital assets and accounts,” according to a draft.

The commission is a nonpartisan group that produces legislative language that can then be introduced and adopted in individual states, with the goal of creating uniform legal standards across state lines.

Sullivan’s bill would ensure that, in New Hampshire at least, the executor of a dead person’s estate “shall have the power, where otherwise authorized, to take control of, conduct, continue, or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any microblogging or short message service website, or any email service website.”

That would include Facebook, Myspace and other social-networking sites; Gmail and other webmail accounts; and Twitter and other microblogging services.

“This would essentially extend the powers of the administrator or executor of the state to basically step into the shoes of the deceased,” Sullivan said, taking control of the account and making the decision either to continue operating it or shut it down.

Sullivan said he was inspired to file his bill after several high-profile cases of bullying that led to teenagers’ suicides. In some cases, he said, the bullying continued online even after death, and families faced difficulty gaining control of those social-media profiles.

“The law is very vague as to the power of survivors to do something about it,” he said.

His bill, he added, is “going to bring the law up to date.”

There can be privacy pitfalls, though, to granting posthumous access to digital accounts.

“I personally don’t want my family to be able to read my email or other private online activity after I die. It’s private for a reason, after all,” wrote Rebecca Jeschke, digital rights analyst at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email. “I’d be pretty suspicious of any bill that doesn’t default to allowing privacy for people even after they passed.”

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on Sullivan’s bill, HB 116, this morning at 10:30.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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