Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, May 3, 2013

How permanent or reliable are online genealogical data storage options? What if you die?

Online storage is touted as the solution to your backup problems. As genealogists, we have a huge amount of time and effort invested in our data files. Backing up those files is a crucial issue and frequently overlooked until after the first catastrophic loss. But there is a deeper issue that just the initial preservation of data. There is a collective and nearly universal concern about the viability of online data storage over long periods of time. What if you were to transition to using the Web as your sole source of file storage and did not rely on your own computer or hard drive; would that reliance on the Web be warranted or misplaced?

Any primary storage or backup storage is only as good as the reliability of the underlying hardware. If you rely on online backup and use the Web for primary storage also, how do you know if the hardware being used is reliable or not. But more importantly, how do you know whether or not the business entity hosting the files will remain in business?

There is also a very important issue about the viability of maintaining online data strorage in the event of the death of the researcher/genealogist. Who continues to pay for the online storage capacity? Ideally, there should be some way to transition the research from private control to institutional control. But the legal mechanisms and even some of the practical mechanisms for doing that are still not in place. For example, let's suppose the data is stored in a company whose primary office is in New Jersey or New York, but the deceased genealogist lived in California. Do the probate laws of the place of business of the hosting company apply or the laws of the place where the genealogist contracted for the services or where the genealogist lived? At what happens if the actual storage location was in another state altogether. These choice of laws issues are real and can have a real impact on what happens to a deceased genealogist's digital estate.

Of course this concern extends far beyond merely issues of who inherits or pays for online genealogical research storage, it also touches such things as Facebook content, iTunes collections, and any other personally owned information that resides online. Believe me, this is getting a significant amount of discussion in the legal community. For example, see this article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal back on 11 April 2013, "Google Lets Users Plan 'Digital Afterlife' by Naming Heirs."

Even if Google would allow you to name an heir or successor to an account, that fact raises a multitude of issue usually present in any probate matter such as testamentary intent, capacity and the adequacy of the assignment. If you use Google to designate an "inactive account manager" how is that different than or the same as a will? What if the genealogist leaves a formal will and it contradicts or apparently contradicts the assignment given on Google. What happens then? Does the estate have to sue Google to gain "possession" of the data? What if Google or any other provider allows the data to be lost? Is there any liability to the estate of a deceased genealogist for the loss of data?

I might mention that raising these issues, and they are being raised, will undoubtedly result in the major online service providers adjusting the service agreements (those long legal pages in their websites that almost no one reads) to reflect that fact that they have no liability at all for anything that could possibly happen. How then would the online service provider respond to the demands of a court appointed personal representative or executor of the estate?

So if the online providers write their service agreements to disclaim any responsibility for anything that might happen upon the death of the genealogist, then what use are the services to genealogists as a way to keep their information from being lost?

You might notice that I am asking a whole lot of questions and not providing answers. The reason is simple, there are presently no answers until the legal issues are addressed either by legislation or by court decisions and there are many more questions that I have yet to ask.


  1. When evaluating data storage, it’s important to know how much data you’re dealing with and in what format. You can refer . Hope your problems may get solved.

  2. It's entertaining to hear about your view of things in the future, James. Anyhow, talking about cyberspace is really a broad discussion. We can never assume what would happen next. But I think it varies on how long you are able to store your data online. The purpose of online data storage is to become your backup plan in case you're not sure about the safety of your hard drives. The responsibility is still on our hand and how can we deal with it.

    Willene Fagen