Yahoo is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to definitively declare what happens to our emails when we die and overturn a Massachusetts high court decision finding that federal law doesn’t bar disclosing the digital communications to representatives of someone’s estate.
“The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision effectively eliminates personal privacy in email content after death by giving estate administrators complete control over those private communications,” wrote Marc Zwillinger, an attorney for Yahoo, in the petition he filed to the Supreme Court last month.
In October, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found the federal Stored Communications Act doesn’t prevent the release of a dead person’s emails when their personal representatives consent to the disclosure.
The underlying case concerns John Ajemian, who died in a bike accident in 2006 at the age of 43. He had no will, and his siblings have since been fighting to get the contents of Ajemian’s email account.
But Yahoo, now owned by Verizon Communications Inc., maintains it does not have to turn over the communications under federal law. It has asked the Supreme Court to grant certiorari, hear the case “and resolve the uncertainty.”
“The SJC’s decision effectively revokes the privacy rights of users in their email content … the moment they die,” Zwillinger wrote. “Instead, complete control to publish or keep the emails confidential shifts to the estate administrator, who could be a trusted family friend or a complete stranger to the decedent.”
Zwillinger and other attorneys for Yahoo declined to comment.
Robert Kirby, an attorney representing the Ajemians, said in an email that they “intend to oppose Yahoo’s petition on the grounds that we do not believe it to be (certiorari) worthy.”
To this day, the Ajemians haven’t been given access to the emails.
In Kirby’s argument to the SJC, he wrote: “Like a diary, the emails may prove to be of only sentimental value, with no role in the administration of the estate, but they nonetheless pass as part of the estate.”
Yahoo’s attorneys, however, argue the dead have ongoing privacy rights.
“Their emails may say unflattering things about children, parents, and spouses, or contain embarrassing revelations, which they intended to remain private, even after death,” Zwillinger wrote.