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One day each of us will pass on and be no more. We will cease to be, expired stiff and bereft of life, our metabolic processes part of history. Most of us don’t like to think about joining the choir invisible or, for that matter, what will happen to our online profiles once we become ex-people. A startup called Perpetu wants to make it easier for us to ensure that our social network accounts are unplugged once we shuffle off this mortal coil. The service, which currently lets users add Facebook or Twitter accounts for free, just launched its premium service, which costs $15 a year or a $100 one-time payment and includes support for LinkedIn, Google+, Dropbox, Flickr and GitHub.
How it works
Founded by an intellectual property lawyer and banker, Perpetu allows you to decide what happens to your “online assets” after you die even if you don’t have a will.
First, you sign up for Perpetu with your email, Facebook or Twitter account. Once you are logged in, you will see a list of services you can add to Perpetu. There are several options for each. For example, you can schedule a final wall post for your Facebook profile, or download photos, your status updates and private messages and have the files emailed to certain people. On GitHub, developers can select repositories to make public after they die. Your LinkedIn contacts can downloaded and forwarded to a colleague or someone else.
Online privacy laws are still in their infancy and each social network has different ways of dealing with the information of deceased users. Unfortunately, their methods often conflict with the wishes of family members and friends.
Co-founder Ryanne Lai says two cases in particular motivated her. In the U.K., a woman named Louise Palmer complained after her late daughter Becky’s Facebook profile was turned into a memorial page because she could not log on to remove spam or read the encouraging messages friends had sent Becky after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Several years earlier in the U.S., the family of soldier Justin Ellsworth sued Yahoo in 2005 to gain access to their son’s email account, where he had been drafting a memoir of his service in Iraq before he was killed by a roadside bomb.
“The thing about the [Ellsworth] case that was really shocking to me was that on one hand I couldn’t believe how much trouble the family had to go through to get access to the emails,” says Lai. “But even more shocking to me is that the son may not have wanted his family to see everything. He had no control and there was no way to strike a balance.”
Balancing privacy and access
Perpetu seeks to respect the wishes of its users while making sure that their heirs don’t need to endure the lengthy process of submitting death certificates, obituaries and court orders in order to gain access to their online accounts. The company tackles the problem by letting you chose which files or folders to send to specific people, one of the main ways in which it differentiates from competitors.
Similar services include Legacy Locker, which was acquired by PasswordBox earlier this month, AssetLock and Google’s Inactive Account Manager. Other “digital afterlife” services include DeadSocial and LivesOn which lets you prepare messages to be published to your social networks after you die.
Unlike Legacy Locker or AssetLock, Perpetu doesn’t ask users for their passwords. Instead, you select what information is downloaded and sent to your friends and family so they don’t have to log into your accounts and go through the potentially traumatic process of sifting through all your private emails, documents and photos.
“That’s why I started Perpetu. I have a Tumblr. I have a fan Twitter account used specifically for tweeting to Adam Lambert,” says Lai. “These are things that I want to keep and that my family wouldn’t understand.”
“For companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Google, they are not putting enough effort into dealing with dead users’ accounts. It doesn’t get them any more data. There’s no incentive for them,” she adds. “I appreciate Google doing an inactive account manager, but Perpetu has no conflict of interest.”
Lai first pitched Perpetu’s concept at Startup Weekend Hong Kong in 2011, where she met co-founder Andrea Livotto. The two built a prototype at the event, then applied for funding from the Hong Kong government. Perpetu, which first launched in April, is currently part of Hong Kong Cyberport‘s incubator and has received a total of $630,000 HKD (about $81,000 USD) in seed funding from the program.
So far, none of Perpetu’s 1,000 registered users have passed away, which means its founders are still able to glean feedback about features from them. Perpetu’s early adopters asked for Dropbox and Instagram support, which is why the startup decided to launch a premium service.
Getting users to sign up for the site’s free service has not been a problem, even though dying is a topic most people don’t want to confront. Perpetu’s site was designed so it doesn’t look “too dark or depressing,” Lai says. The service is also much easier than finding a lawyer and drafting a will.
Making sure you are really, really dead
On the other hand, deleting online accounts is sometimes too easy, as demonstrated by a January Buzzfeed article titled “How To Murder Your Friends On Facebook.”
To avoid accidents and pranks, Perpetu has several safeguards in place to verify a user’s death before it starts deactivating accounts. When you sign up, you provide contact information including your email, phone number and the beneficiaries listed on your will, if you have one.
When Perpetu learns of your death, it will send an email to you (or your inbox, rather), then call you to make sure that reports of your death have not been greatly exaggerated. You can also set an amount of time to elapse after your death before Perpetu starts following your instructions. Lai says the company is looking at other ways of verifying deaths in different countries, such as checking with government agencies.
Though Perpetu gives you a certain amount of control over your online legacy, there are also things it cannot do. For example, Perpetu can’t ensure that Facebook or other online services will permanently wipe your data from their servers.
Lai also emphasizes that Perpetu is not meant to replace a final will.
“We can carry out online wishes for our users through an online mechanism, but if they have a will and the will contradicts Perpetu’s instructions, then of course the will overrides it,” she says. The company wants to work with lawyers and legal firms to encourage people to mention Perpetu accounts in their wills.
What Perpetu can do is give you more control over what people can or can’t see on your profiles after you die.
“What we want to focus on is that you have so much you have created in your life. There’s value in those creations,” says Lai. “When people start leaving final wishes, they reflect on what they can do in life.”