Stationed in a remote corner of Iraq, Marine Corps reservist Karl Linn's only means of communicating with the outside world was through a computer. Several times a week, the 20-year-old combat engineer would log on and send out a batch of e-mails and update a Web site with pictures of his adventures.
For his parents in Midlothian, Va., the electronic updates were so precious that when he was killed last week in an enemy ambush, one of the first things they did was to contact the company that hosted their son's account. They wanted to know how to access the data and preserve it.
Richard Linn, father of Marine Lance Cpl. Karl Linn, killed in Iraq, looks at his son's Web site. Mailbank.com refused to give information about the account.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Web Chronicle Excerpts from the online journal of Army Spec. Michael J. Smith.
But who owns the material is a source of intense debate.
Linn's father, Richard, said he believes the information belongs to his son's estate, just like his old high school papers, his sweaters and his soccer ball, and should be transferred to the next of kin. The e-mail and Web hosting company, Mailbank.com Inc., said that while it empathizes with the family's situation, its first priority is to protect the privacy of its customers. It refuses to divulge any information about the accounts.
As computers continue to permeate our lives, what happens to digital bits of information when their owners pass away has become one of the vexing questions of the Internet age. Much of that data are stored in accounts on remote servers and have no physical manifestation that can be neatly transferred. There are no clear laws of inheritance, meaning that Internet providers must often decide for themselves what is right.
Many Internet firms have found themselves facing criticism no matter what they do. If they decline to release the information, they are labeled villains by people supporting the families. If they give it up, they are chastised for violating their own privacy statements.
Complicating such disputes is the very nature of e-mail, which many consider to be more personal and informal than regular letters; some even use it to correspond anonymously, to hide aspects of their lives they may not want revealed to others.
"The difficulty is that there's no clear morally right or wrong," said Michael Froomkin, a professor of Internet law at the University of Miami.
Official policy varies from company to company. Many of the larger e-mail and Web site providers, such as America Online, MSN Hotmail, Google's Gmail and EarthLink, allow for the transfer of accounts upon death with proper documentation, but plenty of others do not. Yahoo, for instance, over the past few weeks has found itself under fire for refusing to allow a Michigan father, John Ellsworth, whose son died in Iraq in November, to access his son's e-mail.
Mary Osako, a spokeswoman for Yahoo Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., which manages about 40 million accounts, said that "our hearts go out to the Ellsworths and any family that suffers from a tremendous loss such as this." But, she added, "the commitment we've made to every person who signs up for a Yahoo Mail account is to treat their e-mail as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential."