Last year, Irishwoman Donna Ahern lost her twin sister, Susan. It was a sudden illness. Her family and friends were devastated.
mid the grief, Donna had to consider another issue – what to do about Susan’s social media profiles.
Susan was a talented make-up artist who was active on Instagram and Facebook and used Google’s Gmail as her main email.
She died two days before her birthday. Because of the way social media birthday reminders work, her Facebook page drew upbeat wishes from those who were unaware of her passing.
“It was very upsetting,” says Donna. “I wanted to do something about it.”
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Donna says she tried, but “ran into a wall” with the big tech companies.
“Their systems were so impersonal, I felt like I was dealing with bots the whole time,” she says. “One of them [Gmail] asked me for a US attorney’s letter to proceed.”
She left the issue unresolved as she dealt with the family’s, and her own, pain. This year, Susan’s one-year anniversary brought the issue back. Donna found the business-as-usual approach to her sister’s Facebook page hurtful.
“A guy put up a photo of her on her Facebook page,” she says. “I asked him to take it down but he wouldn’t. I just didn’t know what to do.”
She tried again to go through the channels Facebook recommends: a web page that asks for proof of death and a legal relationship.
The Big Tech Show: The pain of dealing with social media firms when a loved one dies
This time, she says, it abruptly deleted everything without any further process. There was no ‘are you sure’ warning of the type normally to be expected, or any last-ditch ‘would you prefer to memorialise the account instead’ option.
“They removed Susan’s account instantaneously,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be so sudden. In the comments section, I asked them to speak to me before they did anything. I visit that page a lot. I need to access her photos and our memories. It’s like saying goodbye to her all over again.”
Horror-struck at the thought of having permanently deleted years of her twin sister’s public online existence, she reached out to the Irish Independent to ask whether there was any route back from the ‘delete’ button she thought would kickstart a process rather than mean instant erasure.
In response to queries on the matter from the Irish Independent, the company could not find a resolution.
Her photos are on a serve. I find it hard to believe that this isn’t reversible
Donna says she’s dismayed.
“Her photos are on a server,” she said. “I find it hard to believe that this isn’t reversible. I can’t be the first person in Ireland to have gone through this,” she says. “It’s just mind-boggling”
With the matter left unresolved at Facebook, Donna turned to another challenge: Google’s Gmail. She believed her sister had a will that was stored within her Gmail account.
When she approached Google over how to go about any legitimate access processes as Susan’s next of kin, the company’s system gave her an unusual demand: the requirement of a US attorney’s letter.
“It’s an absolute joke,” she says. “Can you imagine how much a US attorney would cost me and how long that would take?”
On enquiry, Google told the Irish Independent that the likely reason for this US legal route request was due to Susan’s account possibly being set up in the UK, where she worked for many years.
When Brexit occurred, UK Gmail users saw some of their jurisdiction transferred to the US. Google’s position is that it is Google’s US-based entity that now controls UK users’ data, and that this results in UK account holders’ requests being met by demands for US court orders.
Google also explained why the contents of Gmail accounts are usually inaccessible to others, even loved ones after the account owner has passed away.
“People expect Google to keep their information safe, even in the event of their death,” the company says on its site.
UK Gmail users saw some of their jurisdiction transferred to the US
At the time of writing, Google had initiated contact with Donna to investigate whether anything was retrievable from the Gmail account.
It also pointed out to this newspaper that for those who have not set a ‘legacy contact’ on its ‘inactive account manager’ section, it requires special legal requests for access to specific content items.
Despite the setbacks, Donna says she still hopes to find a way to access some of the content deleted or blocked as part of her sister’s accounts.
“None of us thought ahead when we set up our social media accounts. But everyone has this ahead of them.”
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