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The recent release of a dead soldier’s e-mail account to his parents in Michigan has sparked a new debate over personal data: Who owns your e-mail when you die? In the recent Michigan case, a probate judge ordered Yahoo! Inc. to give the family of a soldier killed in Iraq full access to their son’s e-mail account. Lance Corporal Justin M. Ellsworth, 20, was killed on Nov. 13, 2004, while inspecting a bomb in Anbar province. After his death, Ellsworth’s parents requested their son’s e-mail records from Yahoo so they could set up a scrapbook. But Yahoo initially refused to provide the account on privacy grounds. “The commitment we’ve made to every person who signs up for a Yahoo Mail account is to treat their e-mail as a private communication and to treat the content of the messages as confidential. We stand behind this commitment,” said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osaka. Osaka said Yahoo releases e-mail accounts when there is a police investigation or a court order, which is what ultimately happened in the Ellsworth case. In the matter of Justin M. Ellsworth, Deceased, No. 2005-296,651-DE (Oakland Co., Mich., Prob. Ct.). A safe deposit box? Attorney Brian Dailey, who represented the Ellsworth family, said there was no court battle with Yahoo and there was no controversy over privacy issues. “It took no convincing because Yahoo agreed,” he said. He added that “[t]here’s really no privacy debate over who owns e-mail. It’s the same thing as a safe deposit box.” Michael Overing, an attorney who teaches Internet law at the University of Southern California’s communications school, believes that e-mail ownership rights “are going to become a floodgate of problems 10 years from now.” Overing noted that baby boomers, who make up the bulk of e-mail users, are going to instigate a wave of litigation over what might happen to their e-mails when they die. Specifically, he believes that people will file claims against an estate to prevent the disclosure of personal information, be it corporate executives seeking to protect company secrets or spouses looking to keep family matters private. Overing of the Law Offices of Michael S. Overing in Pasadena, Calif., said a key problem today is that there is no general law that says e-mail is personal property. He said e-mails are often viewed as tangible property, like a letter, diary or furniture, so when someone dies, the heirs to an estate get the information. “I don’t think that people who use e-mail realize that an electronic document is the same as a paper document,” he said. “It’s a letter you leave behind that somebody can find and read.”

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