Death On The Internet (Or What Would Orwell Do?)

What happens to a site after its operator is deceased? When a corporate personality dies, should the person’s profile page be deleted from the company site?

By Erik J. Heels

First published 7/1/1999; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

How do the powers that be on the Internet handle death? What happens to a Web site after its operator is deceased? When a corporate personality dies, should the person’s profile page and photograph be deleted from the company Web site or remain online? In key instances, the answers to questions like these have left visitors disappointed and confused.

I started writing my column for this issue before the massacre at Columbine High School, which occurred about five miles from where I live. I then decided not to write on this topic. But writing and talking can be cathartic, so I’ve reconsidered.

When someone dies, what do they leave behind? A friend recently lost his father, rather unexpectedly, to leukemia. Disappointingly, he had no videotapes of his father. But he discovered, to his surprise, that he had an audiotape: his answering machine. The recorded message his father had left on his answering machine days earlier was the last – and only – recording he had of his father’s voice. He found himself listening to that message over and over again.

In the movie “My Life,” Michael Keaton discovers he has only a limited time to live. Before he dies, he builds a video library for his young child, hoping the child somehow will get to know his father.

What role does the Internet play when somebody (or something, like a company) dies? Are personal Web sites inherited by the next of kin? What happens to references to the deceased on corporate Web sites? Are personal Web sites shut down? Does anybody notice? Does anybody care?

When people die, survivors have a need for information. Sometimes the Internet can provide that information. All too often, the information is removed from the Internet by people presumably with good intentions. I can only speak from my experience, but there appears to be an Orwellian trend at work here. I can also only hope that this article will do something to stop this trend.

Two years ago, 39 people of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. It was widely reported that members of the cult were involved in Web site development and maintained two sites: Heaven’s Gate (http://www.heavensgate.com/) and Higher Source (http://www.highersource.com/). Within hours of the reports, both Web sites were taken offline – as people desperately searched for information that would help them comprehend this tragedy.

Fortunately, a parody site soon appeared at http://www.highersoruce.org. At first glance, the highersource.org site appeared to be a heartless parody of the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult. But it was not. This site was a commentary on the tendency of the popular press to generalize about all things Internet. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Net professionals are neither pornographers nor cultists. The site also served a useful educational and historic purpose, because it contained the full text of the two Web sites operated by The Heaven’s Gate cult. I don’t know what has transpired in the two years since the tragedy, but the highersource.org site is now defunct and the heavensgate.com site is still offline, but the highersource.com site is back online. But there is no mention of the tragedy on the highersource.com site. It is as if history has been rewritten, just as Orwell predicted in 1984.

The “Trenchcoat” Domains: Still Looking for Answers

More recently, one of the worst school mass murders took place near where I live. In nearby Littleton, CO, 14 students lost their lives at Columbine High School at the hands of two fellow students, who then took their own lives. The two suspects were reportedly into bomb making and had published their hateful beliefs on AOL Web pages. They also were reportedly part of a school group called “The Trenchcoat Mafia.”

Did you, like I, try to find the AOL pages before AOL took them offline? Were you, as I, skeptical of AOL’s claims that it took the pages offline because it was cooperating with an online police investigation? Do you, as I, believe that leaving the pages online could serve to educate teachers, students and parents about the warning signs of such a tragedy? And, maybe, just maybe, to prevent such a tragedy in the future?

AOL has a page on its Web site (http://www.aol.com/mynews/specials/news/denver/home.adp) about the Littleton school shooting, but there is no mention of why AOL took the suspects’ Web pages offline. And yet, without remorse, TV shows play 911 audiotapes and may run security camera videotapes of the shootings. Video- and audiotapes of the crimes may draw viewers, but I submit they are not newsworthy. Web sites that may provide answers to the gnawing question “Why?” are newsworthy.

Some Web sites remain online, and some do a better job consoling than others. For example, The Trenchcoats (http://www.trenchcoats.com), an a cappella singing group based in Seattle, happen to have a domain name people might think is related to the Littleton shootings. It is not. But recognizing why some people might come to their site, The Trenchcoats quickly included the following text on their Web site:

“We have no affiliation with The Trenchcoat Mafia that has been connected to the shootings that took place in Littleton, Colorado. It is just coincidence that our name is similar to theirs. Our hearts go out to the friends and families of the victims, and we hope that all of our fans will keep them in their prayers.”

Thank you, gentlemen, for a job well done.

The people who registered trenchcoatmafia.com on April 20 appeared to have good intentions when they published http://www.trenchcoatmafia.com, but they wrapped their goodwill in self-congratulatory piousness, in my humble opinion. They stated:

“We have registered the domains trenchcoatmafia.com and thetrenchcoatmafia.com to beat anyone who would want to use them for profit or immoral reasons. What happened in Colorado was a very sick and twisted thing and we in no way condone those actions, in fact we are very saddened and scared by them. And if you are wondering why we are using the domains instead of ‘parking’ them? Well I would like to ask why are you looking at this domain. Since the Web site was put up this morning we have been getting 3,000 hits per hour, and this is without advertising or anything. Now if you have a way to reach this amount of people then we will gladly ‘park’ the domain.”

In one fell swoop, they managed to suggest that anyone going to the site was doing so for immoral reasons, and they congratulated themselves for generating so much traffic for thinking of it first.

I went to both of the above sites, looking for answers, looking for why, looking for something that would help me explain to my kids what had happened. I am still looking.

Where Have the Web Sites Gone?

It is a minor, but related, reality that companies sometimes take Web sites offline for no apparent reason. MCI used to sell CDs via its 1-800-MUSIC-NOW service. If you call that number now, you get MCI sales. And if you go to http://www.1800musicnow.com, you end up at http://www.woodstock.com. “You call, you listen, you like, you buy” has been erased from history on the Internet, as if it never existed. Thank goodness print publications exist to preserve some form of reality.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation disabled the Web site for the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do” (http://www.thatthingyoudo.com/). Could they not afford the $20/month to keep the site live for people like me who really enjoyed the movie? Were they somehow embarrassed by the movie? Or was history so unimportant that they just took it offline after its run in theatres was over? I contacted Fox, and got no reply. I can only say it defies logic to take such a site offline – ever. It would only take one or two tape sales per year to pay for itself.

Publishers are also guilty of revising history on the Internet. I dedicated about four years of my life to writing seven editions of “The Legal List,” the last two of which were published in 1995 by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing. “The Legal List” was available free on the Web for nearly all of 1995 and 1996 until December 12, 1996, when it was removed from Lawyers Cooperative Publishing’s Web site (http://www.lcp.com/The-Legal-List/) and replaced with an edition written by a substitute author. I sold the print rights to Lawyers Cooperative Publishing, and after I decided not to write an eighth edition, they exercised their right to continue publishing the title under the same name with a new author. But if you go to the site today, you will find no mention of me, no mention of “The Legal List.” In fact, you’ll find a blank page.

Even “nothing.but.net” columns have been edited post-publication for various reasons. See my April 1997 column (http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/nbn/nbn973.html) for my thoughts on this practice.

My thesis has a typo in it. It remains in the MIT library with the typo intact. If it were published in HTML, would I have corrected the error? Should I have? Frankly, I hope my kids read my thesis some day. And I hope they find the typo.

Even my employer is not immune to shortsighted thinking in this area. About a year ago, Verio’s president, Mark Johnson, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. A week earlier, he had visited his doctor complaining of chest pain. Turns out he had a congenital heart defect. I have never seen a company so completely devastated by the loss of one of its own. I cried. Mark was like a brother to many of us in the company. We struggled to understand how and why this had happened. Yet, one of the first things that happened was that Mark’s bio was unlinked from the management page on our Web site. Soon after, the files themselves were deleted.

Why?

To its credit, Verio published a press release about Mark’s death, and that press release is still online, but his photo is not.

Don’t Obliterate It – Deal With It

For those struggling with the Littleton shootings, with death, or with other tragedies, I offer the following advice: Talk about it. Write about it. Pray about it. Surf the Web about it. There are helpful sites online, such as http://www.death-dying.com. For a memorial to the students who died at Columbine High School, see http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Shores/4523/memorial.html.

I believe history is important. At Red Street Consulting’s site, my business partner Rick Klau and I publish a “museum” of law firm home pages as they existed in 1997 and 1998 (http://www.redstreet.com/content/museum.shtml). We are expanding the museum to include back issues of “The Legal List,” as well as the full content of the “Internet Law Library” (http://law.house.gov/), maintained for years by Elliot Chabot but soon to be closed.

In light of the tragedy in Littleton, and in light of what appears to be Internet censorship at its worst, I may expand the museum to include historic and/or censored Web sites. I have Web pages from when Princess Diana died.

I will continue to look for other pages mentioned above that have been taken offline.

If I die before my time, I would like my organs donated, I would like my kids and my wife to know that I love them, and I would like my Web site (http://www.clocktowerlaw.com/) to remain online. Edit it, if you must, to explain and provide answers to how and why I died. But leave it online. Please.

And to others who would remove content from the Web, please don’t. Please stop. Please think.

You may be doing more harm than good.

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