Experts in social networking, data management and bereavement last week called for sites such as Google, Facebook and MySpace to agree a common policy for dealing with users' data after their death.
The Digital Death Day meeting at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, brought together authors, lawyers, funeral directors and digital activists to discuss what should be done with the billions of pages of content held by social networks, blogging sites and online games after the users that created them have died.
"There's no standard practice across the industry yet," says Kaliya Hamlin, aka blogger Identity Woman. The organiser of Digital Death Day explained the thinking behind the conference in a report by BBC News: "There are no norms for how digital assets are passed on to heirs."
At present, policies vary widely between sites. MySpace provides no means by which heirs can 'inherit' a deceased user's page, while Facebook has enabled the creation of 'digital memorials', providing friends and family with administrative rights to manage tributes on the user's profile, but freezing the addition of new friends. Google has been notoriously difficult about handing over login details to Gmail accounts and other information to the families of the dead.
The lack of any clear guidance also raises some thorny legal issues over potentially valuable digital assets. Domain names can change hands for large amounts of money, and even Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers can attract high prices. Even virtual assets from online games can be valuable. A virtual space station that had become a popular destination in online game Project Entropia recently entered the Guinness Book of Records when it sold for $330,000.
One of the speakers at the conference, Jesse Davis, is co-founder of Entrustet, a US company that acts as an identity broker for social networking sites, and allows users to create wills for their digital assets. "There are two types of value stored in your online accounts," says Davis, "economic and sentimental... both types of assets need to be considered carefully in building a proper digital estate plan."
Digital death-obsessed blogger Evan Carroll, another attendee of the conference, provides a good summary of the day's discussions on his blog, The Digital Beyond.