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Missing the shoebox under the bed Don't count on online services to treasure your memories

Mar 7, 2013 - By Betty Starks Case

I didn't know the full potential of loss that was possible.

Remember my last column on the value of cursive writing and old letters, etc. to help us preserve the memories of special times, special people and places? And how quickly we could lose precious life records in the process we now call "social media accounts?"

A few days after that column was published, I read a newspaper article with the headline "Lost Forever -- Federal law stands in the way of families recovering Facebook contents from dead relatives."

According to story by The Associated Press, the electronics industry that brought us such wonders of communication can declare our photos and messages, including banking information stored online, as "digital assets," and prohibit their being shared, even with surviving loved ones through a last will and testament.

That's scary.

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

Karen, according to the article, battled Facebook for years seeking access to her deceased son's online account, including precious photos, messages, and other memories.

Facebook denied access, citing privacy laws and company policy.

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

Right. These days, your treasures may be floating out there in the ether with a techie of some sort claiming proprietary rights because they're "only following the law."

Maybe they are. But what is the law? Or is it yet to be established?

This is not a criticism of Facebook or any other social media product. Millions of users have enjoyed endless communications through electronic means, as I have. But depending on how much you treasure your input into this handy recording of your life, it might be of value to reconsider your camera use, and pen or keyboard, and paper.

Print on paper probably stores as well as cursive writing, if that's your preference.

And unless your house burns down, all these treasures may be far safer in the proverbial box beneath your bed.

Five states, we're told, have digital assets laws, which vary widely.

Oklahoma, for example, passed a law allowing estate lawyers to access digital assets, even social media accounts. But Oregon found such a law challenged by Facebook and Gmail, saying their terms of agreement supersede such laws.

Some digital providers simply delete the files when a subscriber is deceased.

Did you know that? I didn't.

Shouldn't we have a law prohibiting a supplier's arbitrary disposal of anyone's personal property?

Without clarity or direction, according to the article, digital information left behind by a deceased person can spark all sorts of legal problems.

Of course, this provides more business for the legal world. But if online photos, letters, etc. are the personal property of the initiator, why must they fight or pay a lawyer to retrieve them?

Back to the sad experience of Karen Williams. Friends of her deceased college-bound son helped her find his password. She used it for a while to ease her sorrow, finding comfort in his photos and letters.

Until, that is, she sought help from Facebook to prevent deletion of her son's records.

Shortly, the password was changed by the site's administrators and the entire record deleted.

So, just in case you didn't happen across the information I found in the recent informative news article, and if you have an online account of any kind, or know someone who does, you may wish to look into it.

I'll keep the clipping in my files for future reference. Now that we know what's possible, we can handle our treasured communications accordingly.

And, hey, what's wrong with a few boxes of memories under the bed, anyway? Might help prop it up in more ways than one.

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