We are discussing the rights that a family has to email accounts after the death of a family member. More precisely, should Justin Ellsworth’s parents have been given access to his email? Is email any different then hand written letters? Any letters that you write to friends, family, business associate, and acquaintances become part of your estate and are given to whomever you have left your estate to. Should emails be in the same category? Who has Rights after our death?
In our quest to figure out this answer we should look at the ethical consequences for all involved and look at the Utilitarian and Deontological effects this dilemma puts on Justin’s Ellsworth’s rights (even after his death), his parents’ rights, and the rights of Yahoo! and email account holders. Justin Ellsworth established an email account with Yahoo! never realizing the problem that this email account would create after his untimely death. Do we ever know what reason people have for creating email accounts?
Fundamentally, we use email accounts as a way of communication between friends, family, and colleagues but there are other reasons people create email accounts. We do not know why Justin created his email account. It may have been as harmless as a way of communication with his friends and family while he was overseas or Justin may have had other reasons that he did not want his family or friends to know about, sort of a secret identity that he kept hidden from his family. Justin made have had a side of his life that others were unaware of.
Yahoo’s Obligation When Does it End? When you sign up for a Yahoo! email account you have to agree to their “Terms of Service” and “Privacy” contract. The Yahoo! Terms of Service and Privacy contract that you agree to honor when you signing up for an email account states: You agree that your Yahoo! account is non-transferable and any rights to your Yahoo! ID or contents within your account terminate upon your death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted1. Deontological vs. Yahoo Yahoo!
as an internet provider had a deontological right and a contractual right to deny the Ellsworths access to this account. From a deontological view point Yahoo! had a duty to the rights of their members to protect their privacy. Utilitarian vs. Yahoo From an utilitarian view point Yahoo! had a moral and ethical obligation to protect its members’ privacy. Their members needed to believe that Yahoo! would protect their privacy and with Yahoo! serving over 411 million account members as of October 20052 according to http://yhoo. client. shareholder. com/press/faq. cfm, that is a lot of members’ rights to protect.
This vast amount of people would no longer have trust in Yahoo! if they have given Justin’s parents immediate access to their son’s email account. Yahoo! protected the right of their customer’s privacy by denying the Ellsworths access to their son’s account. From My Prospective My twin daughters have diaries that they keep all their information in. They write about their love life, their ups and downs, and sometimes their anger at me. These diaries are kept under lock and key. The lock and key to them is a way of guaranteeing their privacy. If they wanted me to know what they write they would not lock it.
Justin’s member name and password is as symbolic as the lock and key on the diary. If he had wanted his parents to have access to this account, he would have given them the password to his account. I feel that by accessing his account after his death it is not serving a greater good. The only purpose it is serving is for the parents in their grief to access their son’s private communications. There is nothing in these communications now that can provide relief to them or help them with the mourning of their son, there is no greater good that can be served by reading these emails.
The Ellsworths’ Point of View If we look at this from the parent’s point of view, why is an email account any different then a bank account or documents found in a lock box at home? The Ellsworths were the legal beneficiaries after Justin’s death. Doesn’t this mean that all of Justin’s affects were now legally theirs to do with as they wanted? Didn’t they have the deontological stand point that they had a duty to organize and take care of their son’s property? What utilitarian value did their action of filing a law suit against Yahoo! to gain access to their son’s email account have?
I don’t feel that the end result justified the means. Justin’s Rights from my point of view I feel that the Ellsworths had no right to be able to access Justin’s Yahoo! email account. Even in death I feel Justin still has a right to information privacy. Justin’s rights were violated in such as access to this account by anyone but himself violated first the contractual agreement between himself and Yahoo! , secondly it violated his privacy of personal communications, thirdly it violated his privacy of personal data, and lastly and most significantly to me it violated his privacy of personal behavior.
Do we lose our rights when we die? I feel that since we lived, everyone is guaranteed rights even after our demise. Our rights don’t end just because our life has come to a close. Justin has a right to all of these protections because he lived. Justin’s rights don’t stop because he is no longer here. Sometimes the very nature of a relationship between parents and children is secretive and the parents do not know everything about their children. Justin’s email could have revealed information to his parents that Justin might not have ever intended them to know.
For instance, Justin could have been gay, he could have been having an affair with a married woman, and there could have been many other possibilities that would have been exposed in correspondences that were never meant by Justin to be read by his parents. We have a duty to protect Justin’s right to privacy. He made an agreement with Yahoo! granting him the right to keep all of his communications private and that his email account would be erased from the Yahoo! database after his death.
Justin had a choice in life what to do with his estate, which included his correspondences be it via hand written letters or via email. He chose to let his email account die with him. He had a psychologically and sociologically right to privacy and we had a duty to grant him that right. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 This was Justin’s own personal space. While serving our country I do not think he had to worry about monitoring his own email so that in case of his death his parents didn’t read something startling.
Lastly, the Ellsworths are violating The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. First, section 2701 does make it a federal offense to read someone else’s electronic mail. That would be exceeding your authorization, since “private” e-mail systems do not intend for anyone other than the sender or receiver to see that mail3.
In Conclusion While I feel for the Ellsworth for the death of their son, I find that the only people this lawsuit benefited were themselves. They had to lash out at someone in their time of grief. That is common and is a natural phase of grieving. Justin still lives in their heart and their memories not in his emails.
1. Chambers, Jennifer. Family Gets GI’s Email (Electronic Version). April 21, 2005. Retrieved on April 22, 2006 from http://www. detnews. com/2005/metro/0504/22/A01-157676. htm. 2. FAQs. Copyright 2006. Retrieved on April 24, 2006 from http://yhoo. client. shareholder. com/press/faq. cfm. 3. Leach, Susan L. Who Gets To See The Email Of The Deceased? (Electronic Version). May 2, 2005. Retrieved on April 22, 2006 from http://www. csmonitor. com/2005/0502/p12s02-usju. html.