The Marine, Justin Ellsworth, 20, was killed in November by a roadside bomb in Falluja while assisting civilian evacuations before the large-scale military offensive against insurgents in the city, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press. But when Ellsworth's father John tried to recover his e-mail account, he was barred due to Yahoo's policy of not giving e-mail passwords to anyone besides the account holder.
A Yahoo spokeswoman said the company's terms of service require the company not to disclose private e-mail communications for its users. Yahoo will turn over the account to family members only after they go through the courts to verify their identity and relationship with the deceased. After 90 days of inactivity, Yahoo deletes the account.
"Emotionally, this is very difficult for all involved," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako. "However, there are important reasons why we feel it is important to uphold the preferences that are part of the agreement we have with our users regarding their privacy. What all of us are looking for is a path that upholds individual privacy and also fully respects a family's request."
John Ellsworth's battle against Yahoo raises the issue of whether companies should depart from their policies under certain circumstances. Some e-mail providers, such as America Online, allow next-of-kin to access e-mail accounts of the deceased by submitting documents proving the relationship and by faxing a copy of the death certificate. AOL does not require loved ones to go through the courts.
An EarthLink representative said the company also has policies in place for special circumstances involving the death of a family member similar to AOL's. A Microsoft representative could not immediately comment.
The Marines have a system of returning personal items to families and next-of-kin. The families receive the soldier's possessions at the time of death, as well as items in storage at his or her base in the United States, ranging from cars to crates of personal possessions left behind before shipping out. All letters destined for mail are sent to their recipients, and received mail, including opened letters, are sent to their families.
"Each Marine gets a crate or large boxes to pack stuff in," said Marine spokesman Brian Driver. "Whatever's in there gets sent back. Period."
Because infantry on the front lines do not get a Marine e-mail account, many soldiers turn to the couple hundred Internet cafes set up