Bereaved father fights Yahoo for dead son's war e-mails
By Jacqui Goddard in Miami
At every opportunity, Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth rattled off despatches from the battle in Iraq, sending them by e-mail to family and friends back in America.
He cherished those that he received in return, vowing that when he got home to Wixom, Michigan, he and his father would go through the correspondence together and paste it into a scrapbook as a family archive.
"I am saving all the e-mails that I get from everyone," wrote the 20-year-old US Marine. "They really brighten my day."
When he finally made the journey home from Iraq, however, it was in a coffin, along with four colleagues killed beside him in a roadside explosion in Fallujah.
To his father, police sergeant John Ellsworth, the scrapbook plan is now all the more important. Yet Yahoo, the internet service provider, is refusing to open L/Corp Ellsworth's e-mail account, saying that it has a duty to protect his privacy even after his death.
The stand-off has raised legal questions as to who is the gatekeeper of the dead's cyber-correspondence, and whether e-mails constitute personal possessions that should be passed on to the families of the deceased.
Mobile telephone accounts, bank details and other personal paperwork, including letters in pen and ink, usually become the property of the estate. The rules of cyberspace, however, are less clear, leaving L/Corp Ellsworth's computer messages locked behind a password Yahoo refuses to share.
"The commitment we've made to every person who signs up for a Yahoo mail account is to treat their e-mail as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential," said a Yahoo spokesman.
Other service providers including AOL, Hotmail and Earthlink will, on request, transfer a dead person's e-mail account to their next of kin.
In the small print of its terms and conditions set out for its 40 million customers, however, Yahoo states that all rights to its accounts terminate upon the person's death.
Mr Ellsworth has hired lawyers to try to prevent Yahoo erasing his son's digital legacy in mid-January.
"In the same way as a bank owns a person's safe deposit box but does not own its contents, I see that Yahoo owns Justin's account but not the messages that are contained within it," he said.
L/Corp Ellsworth contacted home most days either ringing or sending an e-mail to share his news or to tell his father that he loved him.
In the days leading up to his death on November 13, he had been placed with a special reconnaissance unit to evacuate civilians from Fallujah before the US military onslaught, so was not able to make contact.
Mr Ellsworth, who has spent the past few weeks trying to guess his son's password without success, said: "These writings were not of his exploits with women and booze and carrying on, they documented his experiences of war, of serving his country and the pride he took in that.
"They are messages that passed to and from a soldier who laid down his life."