Digital Groundbreaker

Oklahoma becomes the first state in the U.S. to address what happens to someone’s digital life after they die.

If you’re like many Oklahomans, your daily routine is captured in Facebook status updates, photos uploaded to Flickr, tweets and more. But what happens to your digital life when you die?

For as much as people have been sharing their lives online, very little has been done to ensure that those online remnants of Oklahomans’ lives are properly dealt with.

That is, until a former state representative’s bill was signed into law late last year. Now Oklahoma is leading the nation in helping make sure that a person’s virtual life can survive long after their real life ends.

Ryan Kiesel authored a law that took effect in November 2010. Under the rules set forth, the executors of an individual’s estate have control over their online holdings as well. In other words, family members, or whoever is designated to control an Oklahoman’s estate, can decide what to do with their online legacy.

“In the past, you might have had a shoebox full of letters or photos that somebody might leave behind as part of their estate,” Kiesel says. “A lot of those photos are on Flickr now. A lot of those letters are now in email form online. A lot of those communications are on Facebook or Twitter.”

Many web services only allow the creator of an online account to control its contents, according to their Terms of Service agreements. If that creator dies, their online accounts could remain in limbo.

Bill Handy, a visiting professor with Oklahoma State University and social media expert, says the law will help ease the process as executors deal with an online estate.

“The thinking is, let’s not make it difficult for families who are dealing with estate issues to do what they normally do with ease because once there were paper trails. Now those paper trails no longer exist,” he notes

Under Kiesel’s law, which was met with bipartisan support, people who are appointed by the state or a person’s will automatically have the power to act on a person’s online accounts, both personal and financial.

There is still a question of how the law will work when it goes up against potentially conflicting terms of service agreements of online companies. But Handy says the Oklahoma law should act much the same as laws dealing with physical property do.

If nothing else, both Kiesel and Handy say the law should be helpful in encouraging Oklahomans to plan now for their legacy when the inevitable happens.

“I think the biggest benefit is that it has started a discussion about more thorough planning,” Kiesel says.