April 21, 2005 12:39 PM PDT

Yahoo releases e-mail of deceased Marine

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Yahoo denies family access to dead marine's e-mail

December 21, 2004
Complying with a court order, Yahoo agreed to give the family of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq access to the soldier's e-mail.

On Wednesday, an Oakland County probate court in Michigan ordered Yahoo to give the contents of the e-mail account to the father of Justin Ellsworth, 20, who was killed in November by a roadside bomb in Fallujah.

Yahoo complied with the mandate Thursday, despite the company's policy of not giving e-mail passwords to anyone other than the account holder.

"We are pleased the court resolved this matter," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.

The case highlights uncertainty about the privacy of people's digital life in the event of their death, and about the responsibilities Internet service providers have toward family members.

Experts say there has yet to be a definitive court ruling on the status of e-mail as to whether it is an extension of the deceased's estate at the time of his or her passing. But, they say, it would stand to reason that e-mail account information and the data within the account would be treated equally to other possessions.

"If an ISP's terms of service run contrary to what would seem to be a reasonable holding by a probate court, then you would need to have a hearing to find which position would win out--whether the public interest is better served by releasing personal data or by upholding a privacy holding in an ISP's terms of service," said Ray Everett-Church, principal for privacy consultancy PrivacyClue.

Still, privacy experts say ISPs are within their rights to ask the courts to make such a ruling. "If it turned out some shenanigans were going on, Yahoo would be in breach of its own privacy policy," Everett-Church said.

Some e-mail providers, such as America Online, allow next-of-kin to access e-mail accounts of the deceased by submitting documents proving the relationship and by faxing a copy of the death certificate. AOL does not require loved ones to go through the courts.

Yahoo's terms of service prohibit the company from disclosing private e-mail communications. Yahoo will turn over an account to family members only after they go through the courts to verify their identity and relationship to the deceased.

Despite its compliance in the case, Yahoo said it will not reverse its company policy, choosing instead to honor the privacy of account holders.

Yahoo delivered to Ellsworth's father, John Ellsworth, a CD of his e-mail documents, according to a spokeswoman. The company also plans to provide him with printouts of the communications early next week.

John Ellsworth could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in an interview with Detroit radio station WJR, he credited Yahoo for acting quickly and responsibly once the legal issues were settled, including helping him decrypt the information on the CD.

"I do appreciate Yahoo's take on this, and I'm glad we were able to come to an agreement," he said.

18 comments

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Where's the dilema
Though I'm not a lawyer, it doesn't seem this case does not seem to rise to anything more than a missing clause in Yahoo's Terms of Service agreement.

Now that Yahoo is aware of this flaw in their agreement, they should no ammend the ToS to include a death clause and appropriate terms to that effect.

I like AOL's solution of providing proof of death before transferring information.

Whether or not you think the e-mails are a part of one's estate is really not relevant here if Yahoo defines what actions they reserve the right to take up front.

Just my $0.02.
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
While I'm at it
Can you guys forward this article to my parents in the event of my untimely death?

Thanks.

P.S.

Please make them prove my death first.

Thanks again,

Rhyss Leary
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Link Flag
Status of YAHOO Email Upon Death of User
I support YAHOO'S current position regarding the release of a user's email/account information. I believe it is presumptious to release any account information without at least a cursory legal review by an officer of the court. A user expects privacy of such material in life and deserves no less in death. Leave the TOS as is.
Posted by fmb43 (8 comments )
Link Flag
Where's the dilema
Though I'm not a lawyer, it doesn't seem this case does not seem to rise to anything more than a missing clause in Yahoo's Terms of Service agreement.

Now that Yahoo is aware of this flaw in their agreement, they should no ammend the ToS to include a death clause and appropriate terms to that effect.

I like AOL's solution of providing proof of death before transferring information.

Whether or not you think the e-mails are a part of one's estate is really not relevant here if Yahoo defines what actions they reserve the right to take up front.

Just my $0.02.
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
While I'm at it
Can you guys forward this article to my parents in the event of my untimely death?

Thanks.

P.S.

Please make them prove my death first.

Thanks again,

Rhyss Leary
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Link Flag
Status of YAHOO Email Upon Death of User
I support YAHOO'S current position regarding the release of a user's email/account information. I believe it is presumptious to release any account information without at least a cursory legal review by an officer of the court. A user expects privacy of such material in life and deserves no less in death. Leave the TOS as is.
Posted by fmb43 (8 comments )
Link Flag
What privacy?
The person is deceased, what privacy are we talking about here. Does the law have any provision that describes where the term privacy applies? No doubt Yahoo! needs to spell out these terms explicitly but for heaven's sake its not like the departed won't be able to rest in peace if his "private" email account was given out to family.
Also in such a case, what if email was used as a means of communication between extremist group's members, does the company, "based" in U.S. or nay other country have any responsibility towards national security. I think its time communication terms were revised by service providing companies.
Posted by harshitsekhon (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Privacy for the living
I don't know how more to explain it. Do you have any skeletons in your closet that you want the world to know?

If he was speaking with extremist groups, the government already has the right to monitor and intervene.
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Link Flag
What privacy?
The person is deceased, what privacy are we talking about here. Does the law have any provision that describes where the term privacy applies? No doubt Yahoo! needs to spell out these terms explicitly but for heaven's sake its not like the departed won't be able to rest in peace if his "private" email account was given out to family.
Also in such a case, what if email was used as a means of communication between extremist group's members, does the company, "based" in U.S. or nay other country have any responsibility towards national security. I think its time communication terms were revised by service providing companies.
Posted by harshitsekhon (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Privacy for the living
I don't know how more to explain it. Do you have any skeletons in your closet that you want the world to know?

If he was speaking with extremist groups, the government already has the right to monitor and intervene.
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Link Flag
Marine is not a soldier
Your editors need to learn that Marines are not soldiers, Semper Fi
Posted by azjarhead (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Then what are they?
If a Marine is not a soldier, what is he? Does he not act like a soldier?

Per Dictionary.com:

" 1. A soldier serving on a ship or at a naval installation.
2. Marine A member of the U.S. Marine Corps."
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
Please look up the word in a dictionary...
before you post! A soldier is anybody that is in the military (Army, Navy, Marines, Airforce, Reserves, Guard, Coast Guard). But it's especially used for people that are in the Army.
Posted by newrican (8 comments )
Link Flag
Marine is not a soldier
Your editors need to learn that Marines are not soldiers, Semper Fi
Posted by azjarhead (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Then what are they?
If a Marine is not a soldier, what is he? Does he not act like a soldier?

Per Dictionary.com:

" 1. A soldier serving on a ship or at a naval installation.
2. Marine A member of the U.S. Marine Corps."
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
Please look up the word in a dictionary...
before you post! A soldier is anybody that is in the military (Army, Navy, Marines, Airforce, Reserves, Guard, Coast Guard). But it's especially used for people that are in the Army.
Posted by newrican (8 comments )
Link Flag
kudos, Yahoo!
AOL apparently does not recognize that a deceased person may have left a will excluding certain relatives from access to any part of an estate.

I believe it is right to treat email accounts as being the estate of the deceased, just like any packet of letters or other papers left in a file at home. I believe Yahoo is doing the right thing to ask a court to decide legitimate access, so that the person who has the actual right to such access, whether by an explicit will or by the default of a death without a will having been written.

I think AOL is being terribly irresponsible to appoint themselves in the place of a probate process for granting access to a deceased person's correspondence.
Posted by (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
kudos, Yahoo!
AOL apparently does not recognize that a deceased person may have left a will excluding certain relatives from access to any part of an estate.

I believe it is right to treat email accounts as being the estate of the deceased, just like any packet of letters or other papers left in a file at home. I believe Yahoo is doing the right thing to ask a court to decide legitimate access, so that the person who has the actual right to such access, whether by an explicit will or by the default of a death without a will having been written.

I think AOL is being terribly irresponsible to appoint themselves in the place of a probate process for granting access to a deceased person's correspondence.
Posted by (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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