JOSE, Calif. ó When a landlord discovered the body of
bestselling novelist Marsha Mehran last year in a
seaside Irish cottage, the 36-year-old had left behind a
trove of literary work.
of it, such as the international hit "Pomegranate
Soup," can be found in libraries and bookstores
around the world. Other writings were stuck in the
Internet cloud, including a password-protected account
that only Google knew how to open.
happens to our emails, online searches, or ó in Mehranís
case ó digital manuscripts, when we die? It took
costly legal maneuvers this summer stretching from
Australia to Silicon Valley for her grieving father to
wanted to know if Marsha left any notes, anything about
her sickness, or about what was going on in the last
year or two," said Abbas Mehran. "Whatís the
difference between the notebook my daughter left for me,
with all the secrets of life, and the digital account
that Google has?"
surge of families struggling with similar questions is
driving a behind-the-scenes political battle between
tech companies and estate lawyers over who gets the keys
to someoneís digital afterlife.
California, lawmakers will vote this month on a bill
backed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and a lobby group that
represents Google, Microsoft and Apple. Assembly Bill
691 would deny families access to emails of someone who
died unless a court finds the person had consented to
passing them on to heirs; other digital assets such as
photos and documents would also be restricted, with an
exception for recent files that affect an estateís
finances. By favoring personal privacy over a familyís
wishes, the companies hope to appeal to the unspoken
will of their users while also lessening the
bureaucratic hassle of complying with millions of
people expect the contents of these online
communications to remain private, even after they pass
away," wrote the billís author, Assemblyman Ian
Calderon. "According to a recent Zogby poll, over
70 percent of Americans say their private online
communications and photos should remain private after
they die," unless they gave prior consent to
release their data.
it has with other laws, California could set a national
precedent. But other states are looking to adopt
competing legislation favored by the estate lawyers who
represent families of the deceased, and want to give
survivors broad rights to access digital data.
Calderonís bill as "written by and for technology
companies," Evan Carroll, co-author of the book
"Your Digital Afterlife," said it "goes
against the way estate law has worked for a long
time" by restricting access to a deceased personís
online accounts without prior consent.
of our privacy rights expire when we pass away,"
Carroll said. "Sometimes a family says, ĎI donít
want to read his or her emails. I want my memories the
way they are.í Thatís completely valid. But
certainly an archivist would argue that often just as
important as the manuscript (are) all the notes and
correspondence. It reveals more about the authorís
thought process and the decisions that were made, how
the work came together and what the author was
companies, such as Yahoo, destroy everything and reveal
nothing after a user dies. Others take a case-by-case
approach. Facebook and Google now have online tools that
allow users to choose their digital heirs and how much
they want preserved or deleted upon death.
Mehran did not take any action to preserve her Google,
Yahoo or Hotmail accounts ó most 30-somethings donít.
she also wasnít a typical 30-something. Nearly a
decade before her death, Mehran catapulted to literary
stardom with her debut novel "Pomegranate
Soup," published in 2005 and now scheduled to
become a feature film.
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works culled from her peripatetic life. Born in Iran
before the 1979 Revolution that forced her family to
flee, raised in Argentina, Florida and Australia, she
fell in love with an Irish bartender in New York City
and lived with him in Ireland and Brooklyn. The married
couple ran their own grass-roots publicity campaign
before Random House connected Mehran with professional
publicist Lanie Shapiro.
might sound strange or even silly to say, but there was
a little bit of magic to her," Shapiro said in an
interview. "She was one of those people who just
lights up a room when she walks into the room."
success continued in 2008 with a sequel, "Rosewater
and Soda Bread."
her father said Mehran also suffered personal turmoil in
the last years of her life. He blames much of her
emotional distress on U.S. immigration officials in
Ireland who denied her a visa to return to the United
States. Her husband helped fight her immigration
battles, but eventually they grew apart and divorced.
moved to a vacation cottage overlooking northwest
Irelandís Clew Bay in mid-January 2014, living alone
and with little contact with neighbors or anyone else.
It was in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, the same
mountain that loomed over the fictional setting of her
bestselling novels. She told her landlord that she had
come back to write another book, according to documents
provided to the San Jose Mercury News by the coronerís
office of southern County Mayo.
her landlord tried to contact her about rent issues in
April 2014, Mehran explained that she was sick and had
been vomiting blood for weeks.
get back to you in a few days," Mehran wrote.
landlord offered to help and kept calling and texting
for about two weeks, receiving no response. She finally
let herself into the trash-strewn cottage, discovering
Mehranís body facedown, wearing only a cardigan. Along
with her digital and computer records, her father said
she had left Post-it notes strewn about describing story
characters and other literary details.
had apparently thrown herself completely into
writing," the landlord wrote in a sworn document.
inquest completed in mid-December ruled out foul play
but was otherwise inconclusive, declaring: "The
medical cause of death is underlying diseases which are
Mehran this year became determined to recover whatever
lost literary work could be found in his daughterís
digital archives, and he hoped to trace her Web
footprints to some clues that would explain her physical
and mental deterioration. He first needed access to her
Chromebook, a laptop running Googleís Chrome operating
wrote four emails to Google, receiving no answers. He
finally reached a support hotline, finding helpers who
"had some humanity, a sense of human feelings about
my situation," he said by phone recently from
Boolarra, the small town where he lives in southeast
Australia. He learned that he would need to show Google
a court order to get access.
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Calderon, who introduced the California bill, and the
estate lawyers who want more power for executors say
this is the kind of legal turmoil they are trying to
said lawmakers should think of online accounts as
holding memories, not just private communications.
company lobbyists, while they prefer the California
bill, have been working hard to win concessions from the
nonprofit Uniform Law Commission, run by lawyers
appointed by each state who craft language that can be
adopted nationwide. The commissionís earliest draft
would have given executors access to the content of
emails of the deceased, even without their prior
tech companies and privacy groups quietly pushed back,
and the commission has come up with compromise language
that gets closer to the California bill in deferring to
came to understand that a lot of people view email a lot
differently (from paper mail)," said the commissionís
Ben Orezske, noting that digital accounts automatically
archive but people save only the most important paper
the negotiations reached a boiling point this summer,
they were of little help to Mehran, who was struggling
to navigate the arcane system of current laws and
searched for help online and found one U.S. lawyer,
paying him $1,000 only to discover that the work would
cost another $10,000. So he kept looking.
went searching and I found Kafka," Mehran said.
Franz Kafka, though something about Mehranís
nightmarish wrangling with an invisible, omnipresent
power seemed a little Kafkaesque.
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the Prague writer had his own conflicted feelings about
posthumous writings, most of which would never have been
published had a friend observed his wishes.
I leave behind in the way of diaries, manuscripts,
letters, from others and my own, sketches, and so forth,
to be burned unread and to the last page," Kafka
wrote to the man who would later publish his greatest
no, the Kafka who came to Mehranís rescue was Joe
Kafka, a San Jose lawyer and self-published writer.
was lucky to find Mr. Kafka, who was very brilliant,
very efficient, very effective," Mehran said.
June, Mehran filed a lawsuit against Google in Santa
Clara County Superior Court seeking access to his
daughterís Google Drive account. He limited his
request to documents, believing that Google would object
to disclosing the emails. After several weeks of
negotiations, Google complied with his request, sending
a CD to Kafka, who mailed it to Australia this month.
was overjoyed when he inserted the disc and found more
than 200 documents. But he grew nervous as he discovered
that many were empty, or redundant.
daughterís last work, "The Saturday School of
Beauty" (known as the "The Margaret Thatcher
School of Beauty" in Australia), was nearly
complete and already in the hands of publishers before
her death. Her father also found other writings in her
Google files. One was a new work, which she had named
"Fairytale of New York," apparently after the
bawdy Christmas song by Irish band The Pogues, but it
was in its earliest stages.
documents also included excerpts from "Pistachio
Rain," expected to be the third in a seven-part
series that began with "Pomegranate Soup." But
her father said it was at most 30 percent finished.
can just see from the documents that she had been
sick," he said a day after opening the files.
"She started something but could not continue.
hurt to read.
was crying, crying so much," he said.
wondered if he missed important writings or clues to her
death, if he should have fought harder for her emails
instead. Now, everything was lost in the cloud. Or it
userís guide to how different Internet companies treat
our digital data when we die:
First to create an "Inactive Account Manager"
tool to choose who should have access to emails, photos,
documents, YouTube videos and other information when you
die, and whether you want your account to be deleted. If
you donít take action, family members will typically
need a court order to access your files.
Users can choose if they want their account memorialized
(setting up a permanent or temporary online memorial) or
permanently deleted from the social network after they
Deletes inactive accounts and will not disclose a userís
files upon death, citing the privacy terms each user
agrees to before signing up for account.
Deletes inactive Outlook/Hotmail accounts; discloses
some data to heirs upon request or court order.
Deletes account upon request if a user is known to be
dead; does not provide anyone else access to account.