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What I Said At The Knesset

On December 1st 2014 I was invited to speak at the Knesset, in a discussion held by the Public Petitions Committee regarding digital legacy and estate. You can see pics here.
Below is what I said there, you can also view it here


Let's talk for a moment about him:

This is my brother, Tal Shavit, the esteemed and well-loved car journalist
- one of the founders of the Israeli motorcycle culture.
These are pictures of him at a hearing held by the Economic Affairs Committee of the Knesset in 2009.
Tal was killed when hit by a car on March 2nd, 2011. He was 55 years and 6 months old.

Let's talk for a moment about me:

Following his death I became aware of the world of Digital Death, and ever since, for over three and a half years now, I’ve been writing about it, independently researching it, and lecturing about it. 
I am a member of two international research groups and last year I was part of an Israeli research group with Dr. Erez Cohen.
I’ve written a
guide for dealing with the digital aspects accompanying death, conducted the first Israeli survey about the subject, participated in an un-conference and an international symposium in the UK, and I wrote a paper, which was published in Finland, with Dr. Roey Tzezana.

Now Let's talk for a moment about you:

Without knowing you, I know four things about each and every one of you:

  1. There are people who love you.
  2. There are people you love,
  3. One day they will die. 
  4. And one day you will die.

It’s that simple.
When someone you love dies, you'll want to have as much as possible of what that someone leaves behind, and when you die, those who love you will want as much as possible of what you leave behind. 
It's natural and it's human.

So where's the problem?

The problem is that in the past, people would leave behind them physical things, and it was relatively easy for their loved ones to locate and access those things. There were social norms, legal precedents and laws regulating the bequeathing of such items and the access to them.  
These days, much of what people leave behind is digitalAnd suddenly, their loved ones discover that it is difficult or even impossible to locate such heritage, and even more difficult to gain access to it.
Think for a second: How many online accounts do you have?
How many online accounts does your spouse or partner have?
How many online accounts do your children have?
Without knowing you, I can answer: a lotBut still there are no social norms, no legal precedents and no legislation regulating access to such inheritance. 
This inflicts further pain on families – at a time which is already difficult.

Let's talk for a moment about almost the entire population of Israel:

Do you realize for how many people this is a relevant issue?
How many people encounter and will encounter this problem?
This effects anyone who’s had anything to do with computers, smart-phones and the internet, independent of place, background, or age group.
And it's not like I'm talking about some futuristic threat – this is already happening, and will only happen more often. 

Let's talk for a moment about Mat Beland: 

Mat was 29 years old when he died of cancer. 
Mat knew he was dying, so he took care of everything 
– except for the digital stuff: simply because he and his wife didn't think about it. 
Ashley had been with Mat for a decade and had been married to him for five years, when she found herself at 31, widowed with a small child, and locked out of all of Mat's digital accounts. 

Let's talk for a moment about Jake Anderson.

Jake was 19 years old when, almost a year ago, in December,
He was found frozen to death on a riverbank.
His parents have no idea how he got there and why, so they want to go over his phone records in order to understand what happened.
But they cannot do so, because they don't have the applicable authorizations. 
His mother, Kristi, said
“Nobody should have to face the roadblocks that we’ve had in just trying to see this stuff” 
“I’ll keep paying the phone bill until the day that we can get into it successfully”
“My main goal is to find closure”.
How would you feel if you could not look at your own kid's last communications after they’d been found dead in unclear circumstances?
Over the past few months, Jake’s parents, Bill and Kristi, have been promoting a petition calling for a statutory amendment in Minnesota, USA, (where they live).

Let's talk for a moment about Eric Rash: 

Eric was 15 years old when he committed suicide in 2011. He did not leave a note.
His death came as a total shock to his parents, Ricky and Diane. They had no idea he was under such distress. They wanted to know what had led their son to take his own life – but found themselves locked out of all of his online accounts, which might have shed light on this mystery. 
Take a moment to think about it: If, Heaven forbid, a disaster takes place, how would you feel if you found yourselves, without access to the last emails, videos, and pictures of your dearest and nearest? Without access to possible answers to the mystery of their death?
Following their own personal experience, Eric’s parents led a legislative amendment in their home state of Virginia (USA) to ensure that in future, parents in similar circumstances will be granted access to the digital accounts of deceased minors. 

And I say to you, let us not wait until the first Israeli parents deal with such complications (of the digital aspects of death), before we change the Israeli Law. There's enough pain and loss in our country as it is. Let's change the law right now.

I have no illusion or pretence regarding changing the policies of International websites, ISPs and platforms – but we definitely can, must and should effect a change where we can - in Israel

Sometimes people want access, but sometimes people need it: not just for sentimental reasons, but for practical or professional ones: what if you lost access to the online store, to the list of suppliers, to the inventory list, or to the contact details of the clients, whom you need to tell that something terrible has happened? And all because everything is managed online, and you don't have the Username and password? 
Take a moment and think: who knows your usernames and passwords? Whose passwords and usernames do you know?

Unlike the international ISPs websites and platforms which are used also by Israelis and which explicitly publish their policy regarding granting or not granting access or copies of an online account following the death of it owner - since 2012 to date, I haven't found any Israeli website, ISP or platform which makes its policy regarding such an event public. 
When I enquired – on a case by case basis – as to the policies of theMarker Café, Tapuz, 012, Nana10 (which has now been shut down), Triple C, Internet Rimon, Israblog, Walla, 013 and Bezeq International, I received a wide array of answers – anything from "show us a court order" to "we don't even need a death certificate".

It's important for me to point out that the issue here is not only regulating access or getting a copy after death: it’s also about encouraging people to make their own choices, while still alive, without relying on a policy that: A. they are unaware of because no one makes it public; and B. might change. 
People should be encouraged to manage their own digital heritage, property, estate and inheritance, while they are still alive. Let us be the ones who decide which account will be blocked and which forwarded, and to whom.

Since Tal’s death, I work both on encouraging people to manage their digital estate, and on providing information to the relatives of people who died without having taken care of it. 

Every solution must address both these fields: allowing Israelis to legally manage their digital estate by digital means, which under current Israeli law is impossible, and regulating the access to - or the grant of copies from - the deceased’s account after death, in case he or she did not settle this matter during their lifetime.

My utmost wish would be for Israel to become an "opt out" state. This means that access to his or her digital accounts will be granted to their next of kin - unless the deceased has specified otherwise
Some people care deeply about their privacy after death – by all means, let them leave instructions for closing or deleting certain accounts or even all of them. This is a legitimate request that should be honored. It should also be made known to internet users, that this is the Israeli policy, and that they should prepare accordingly. 
Additionally, people should be encouraged to take charge of these matters while they are alive. There should be more awareness. In Denmark, for example, hospitals provide official booklets listing things to think about and take care of before death, including managing your digital estate. 
In the army, upon recruiting a soldier, why not include in the personal details form also a reference to the digital estate?  And upon every new assignment in a new base, (or a new position) have the soldiers ratify their preferences or revise them.  
Imagine how much simpler this could make things.

This is a modern problem which requires modern answers, and Israel has the chance to be one of the first countries to address it in legislation. 
The death of a loved one comes with so much pain we can do nothing about. But we can at least provide those left behind with smooth and prompt access to the digital estate, heritage, assets, property and content of the deceased, so at least those won’t be lost.
By doing so, we can make it easier for the bereaved by at least saving them this additional pain.


Pictures of Tal at the Knesset were taken in October 2009 by Gilad Kavalerchik and I thank him for his kind permission to use them. 
I also wish to thank Tal Zohar and Moti Galbert for their assistance in locating these pictures. 


My heartfelt thanks to Amir Cahane for translating this text and to Eleanor Cantor for editing it. 

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