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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Can you live online after death?
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Gravestones, BBC
Will your website live on after you do?
One of the great things about the net is that you can, with a little effort, see what effect you are having on life online.

The numbers visiting your site shows how popular it is. Search engines like Google give you an idea of how influential it is and who is quoting you.

In discussion groups you can trace the fallout of questions you posed or comments you make.

What you do on the web has a long life, even the things you wish you hadn't said or done.

But the delicate question has to be asked: What happens to your web presence, be it in a website or blog, when you die?

Frozen in time

To begin with, your site will not breathe its last on the day you do.

Most hosting companies charge by the month or year so your portion of cyberspace will stay yours for at least that long.

Internet domains, such as bbc.co.uk, are usually bought for two year periods, so again that will last until renewal time before being recycled for someone else to use.

Albert Memorial, BBC
Your website could be your only memorial
Many hosting firms and domain sellers do let people pay to keep control of sites for longer but, in all cases, when the case stops the domain and site will be mothballed.

Unfortunately, there are no hosting services that will take over and preserve personal sites after you are dead.

Some national archives are starting to preserve websites, says Michael Day, a researcher at the UK Office for Library Networking and an expert on information management.

Archives in Australia, Sweden and the UK have begun projects to collect important websites but, Mr Day says, they are focussing on culturally important data rather than solo efforts.

"There is probably very little that individuals can do to influence these initiatives or to ensure that their sites are collected for preservation by national libraries," he says.

And although some national libraries are harvesting sites off the web, they only give access to them within their own walls.

He said that older versions of personal websites could be preserved by the Wayback Machine which is run by the San Francisco based Internet Archive.

Currently it indexes 30 billion pages as opposed to the rather paltry 4.2 billion that Google manages.

But chances are that it holds older versions of your site rather than the latest and greatest look.

And even if your website is kept running after your death, says Mr Day, there is the problem of making sure that modern browsers can read the information on it.

"Web sites have their own specific problems with regard to preservation," he says, "They are dynamic and volatile and sometimes dependent on specialised software that would need to be kept or emulated if the 'look-and-feel' of a site was to be retained."

Account controls

But the problems of post-mortem net life are not confined just to your website.

One major problem is that the passwords to your site, blog, web-based e-mail accounts and who knows what else die with you.

Few people are so cavalier as to write down all their passwords and even fewer put them in a file on their PC. And that PC could be locked with a password too.

Thankfully data recovery firms such as Vogon can help you get at that information.

"Getting hold of data off a hard disk drive for us using forensic techniques is possible," says Tony Dearsley, computer investigations manager at Vogon.

Online bank login screen, BBC
Online accounts present problems for executors
"It's relatively straight-forward for us to recover all kinds of information, even if it's been deleted."

But, he says, getting access to the data can only be the start of the trouble.

The next step is to identify all the different accounts that people increasingly maintain online and sorting out which login is for which account.

Then there is the question of jurisdiction, he says, and whether being granted probate in the UK allows you to look at these accounts particularly if the information is being held overseas.

Without the proper permission looking at the account and making changes could be seen as hacking, albeit well-intentioned, even if you have the right password.

Mr Dearsley's advice is to put passwords and account details in a safe place, perhaps with your will, to make sure things are easy to deal with in the event of your death.

But, he says, it is advice given more in hope than expectation.

"Most people do not even write wills," he says.

Perhaps one way to deal with this problem is to send a message to your loved ones after you are dead.

Using rather macabre sites like lastwishes.com, finalpartings.com or thelastemail.com you can write messages that should be sent to your regular correspondents in the event of your death.

Last Wishes and Final Partings let you send either e-mail or postal messages.

In addition to sending messages, Lastwishes lets you store anything you want and will only release it or your messages when contacted by your executor and shown a death certificate.

But the sad truth is that once you are gone - no matter how quickly - then your website is likely to suffer a lingering death.


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