If you decide to prepare a blog post to publish after you die, should anyone be able to stand in your way? What if that blog post might hurt those around you or potentially re-victimize individuals who have been violently attacked?
These are questions swirling after a man who police believed may have attacked multiple women was found dead of apparent suicide earlier this week. As Motherboard reported yesterday, posts on the young man's blog may be publishing posthumously. It's a new realm for questions about people's rights to preserve their online presence after they die.
Tyrelle Shaw, a 25-year-old man suspected of hitting four Asian women in the face over the course of five days, published several blog posts last week that may or may not have been scheduled to appear after he took his own life. The posts included descriptions of the alleged attacks and outlined his motivations, driven by a sense of rejection and an obsession with Asian woman. He also promised that he had another decade's worth of posts queued to publish.
"Most of the time, when we hear about posthumous publishing, it's really whenever someone wants to get the last word on something or they've passed away and left a legacy message of sorts," Evan Carroll, co-author of the book Your Digital Afterlife, told me over the phone. "I've never actually seen a case where someone set up a post to share their suicide note and writing that could torment others. That's absolutely new and fascinating for me."
Carroll has spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and writing about what happens to our online presence after we die. He co-wrote a book that details the legal, cultural, and technical hurdles for preserving your digital assets (everything from your Facebook and Twitter profiles to private online journals and photos) and has run a blog covering these topics for the last eight years. But he told me this case was unlike others he's seen before.
The idea of a digital executor (someone to take care of your online info after you die) is becoming a more common concept. Earlier this year, Facebook introduced a new feature that lets users appoint someone to take over their account in the event of their death. And it's not uncommon for the terminally ill to write poignant farewells to publish online after they die.
But in this case, the digital presence isn't albums of photographs or a heartfelt goodbye, but a dark confessional and descriptions of violence against women. Though it's impossible to know the contents of the blog posts Shaw promised to publish after his death, if what's been published so far is any indication, those posts have the potential to trouble both his family and his victims. He wrote thoughts like "I will hit over a million Asian women in the face with a stick," and described his plans to kill himself in detail.
So what ought to be done in a case like this? Can anything be done at all?
"If there were a person who was tasked with the act of publishing these messages after this individual is gone, that person could make the judgement and say, 'no, this isn't the right thing to do,'" Carroll said. "What we have in this situation is technology that's been programmed to make that happen and there's not much that we can necessarily do."
Since Shaw's blog is hosted for free on Wordpress.com, it's subject to Wordpress's terms of service. I asked a representative of Automattic, which owns Wordpress, if this blog violates any of its agreements, but they only sent me a general reply that Wordpress "does not remove posts unless they violate terms of service or user guidelines." The company would not comment on this blog specifically.
Without having access to Shaw's Wordpress backend, it's impossible to say if any preset posts would violate those terms until after they've already been published.
Still, Carroll thought there was a chance the blog could get shut down entirely, if Shaw's family requested it. For years, families have fought to gain access to a loved one's digital affairs. Companies are often forced into a tough position of choosing between respecting a family's wishes and protecting the privacy of a client, even after they're dead.
But since this situation—removing the blog before more posts are published—wouldn't necessarily invade Shaw's privacy, Carroll said Wordpress might honor Shaw's family's wishes if they were to make such a request. He pointed out that Wordpress's "Deceased User" policy indicates family members can gain ownership of a blog after someone dies.
"But frankly, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what the right answer is here," Carroll said. "Much like any other type of technology, if it can be exploited to do something evil or hurtful, someone will figure out a way to do so. This is just another situation where we've seen that come to pass."