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What happens to your online data when you die?



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Over the last three months, death has lingered over my rural village like a dark cloud. It has claimed a niece, an aunt, an uncle and most recently our last-born brother.

In between the busy funeral arrangements, I wondered about what will happen to my brother’s online presence, his social media accounts and other digital profiles.

What will happen to your online digital footprint once the Almighty recalls you from your temporary hassle?

Do the online service providers delete your digital presence after their algorithms discover that you have been ‘away’ and inactive for far too long?

Do they really have a right to delete your digital presence after a period of inactivity? Is your digital presence as sacred as your earthly life, in the sense that no one has a right to wish it away?

To be fair to the service or platform providers, they must invest time and resources to store and maintain your online presence.

Since you don’t pay them to do this, they obviously derive value from analysing your online activities to create insights that can be sold to potential buyers – mainly advertising agencies.

If your social media account goes silent for a long period of time, it simply means the service provider is not making money out of you. In business terms, there is no value added from a docile account and it becomes a liability to the providers.

On the other hand, deleting your account after you have passed on might mean that their data analytics algorithms will miss out on historical data and trends that maybe useful to potential data vendors.

Many service providers would most likely chose a middle ground by moving your data offline and placing it into an archive or dormant state.

This way, your online presence is not entirely dead, but neither is it alive since it will not be visible within the pubic domain. Your data will remain in the back-office…to be mined posthumously, when and if is necessary.

Sounds like making money out of the dead. Not a good thing to do but so is the nature of business transactions.

Some advanced economies have tried to think through these issues and come up with data protection regimes do protect the data rights of the deceased.

While still alive, you have a right to give and withdraw the consent you gave to the service provider to share your data with third parties. That fact that you have died should not imply that you surrender this right of consent or that it becomes perpetual for the provider to exploit at his pleasure.

Perhaps, before you die, the service provider should allow you to select your next of kin or trusted third party to manage your online data after your demise.

Since it has become common practice to write your will, there is no reason why we should not have similar practice for our online footprint in order to protect, cherish or maintain it for prosperity.

You have a right to be remembered by instructing the service or platform provider to pass over the management of your digital footprint to your next of kin.

You should also have the alternative right to be forgotten – by instructing the service provider to irrevocably delete your digital footprint after death.

Andrew Nyongesa Wambongo – my brother – passed on without thinking about these choices. However, even if he had, do we have laws and regulation in place to ensure that platform providers would have respected his wishes?

What happens to your data after you pass on is an important decision that should not be left entirely at the discretion of the service or platform provider. It should be a negotiated agreement made possible and available by the providers.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.

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