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Who owns your emails?

December 2007

Who owns your emails?  I don’t mean who has the right to see them, although that’s a pretty deep can of worms on its own. What I have in mind is your archive – what will happen to it when you are not there to look after it?

I’m thinking, to some extent, about those who have to deal with a chap’s affairs after he has shuffled off to the cyberspace heaven, but also about historians. In the olden days, letters would have been tucked away in a file, and one’s “papers” (as biographers call them) would form a fairly readily accessible archive, and would look after themselves if no one was interested in them.

But imagine what faces the future biographer of a young blade from today. Vast tracts of his correspondence will have been conducted electronically, by email, text or (even worse) on one of the social networking sites like Facebook that are all the rage at the moment.

In theory, one of the good things about electronic communications is that they can all be stored for ever without either decaying or taking up any physical space. That ought to be good news for historian, but it’s not that simple. Texts, for example, vanish once deleted from your telephone,

E mails are not much better – if your executors or heirs need to look at them it will rather depend who has them. If you keep them on you computer, then it’s easy, provided they are not locked under some impenetrable password.

If, on the other hand, you use a web based email system, the picture is not so clear. Hotmail (owned by Microsoft) and Gmail (owned by Google) say they will release what they have on receipt of appropriate death certificates, but Yahoo’s terms seem to suggest that they may delete all you have stored with them on your death. All other suppliers will have their own rules.

The social networks are worse still; Facebook make it clear that anything you post onto their site (even in your own name) is their property do with exactly as they want. You have no rights in the messages at all, so can’t pass them on to anyone else, even if you want to.

But forget executors and their problems – what about historians? Who is going to make the effort to store, electronically, all the digital equivalents of the box of love letters that is found in an attic?

The trouble with electronic ephemera is that someone has to make an effort to keep it. Whilst it is possible to imagine a forgotten hand written diary surviving on its own for a couple of hundred years, tucked away in an old deed box, it seems to me most unlikely likely that a diary kept on your computer will survive much longer than you do. Who, after all, is going to take the trouble to extract the information before throwing an obsolete computer out?

So, for the moment, I suggest that you keep putting it on paper if you want it to survive you. It’s quite reassuring really - the old ways are still the best.