Post-death rights to social sites' accounts debated

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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- A grieving Oregon mother who battled Facebook for full access to her deceased son's account has been pushing for years for something that would prevent others from losing photos, messages and other memories -- as she did.

"Everybody's going to face this kind of a situation at some point in their lives," says Karen Williams, whose 22-year-old son died in a 2005 motorcycle accident.

The Oregon Legislature responded and took up the cause recently with a proposal that would have made it easier for loved ones to access the "digital assets" of the deceased, only to be turned back by pressure from the tech industry, which argued that both a 1986 federal law and voluntary terms of service agreements prohibit companies from sharing a person's information -- even if such a request were included in a last will and testament.

Lobbyists agree the Stored Communications Act is woefully out of date but say that until it's changed, laws passed at the state level could be unconstitutional.

"Everybody wants to do the right thing, but the hard legal reality is the federal communications act," said Jim Hawley, a vice president at TechNet, an industry group that represents companies such as Google and Microsoft.

Oregon lawmakers moved ahead anyway with a proposal that would have given "digital assets" -- everything from photos and messages stored online to intellectual property and banking information -- the same treatment as material property for estate purposes.

"I think it's time for us to really look at what we can do now," said Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanski after hearing Williams testify about her loss last month.

Two weeks later, however, language in the bill that would have covered social media accounts, from Facebook to Flickr, was stripped as tech lobbyists said the federal law and company privacy policies trumped anything that the bill would have included.

"I recognize the emotional toll these types of decisions can have on a family who's lost a loved one," Prozanski said Thursday. "But some of these issues may have to be addressed when we have more information . . . ."

Five states have digital assets laws, and they vary widely.

"If this were a box of letters under his bed, no one would have thought twice," Williams said.

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