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Privacy Policy Causes Digital Dilemma

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Nick Mokry is like most American e-mailers, using the web for business and pleasure.

"Right now, actually, for employment purposes," Mokry said. "I'm job hunting right now. And personal things, talking to family and friends."

But what if your last words aren't spoken, but typed, floating around the Internet. Such is the dilemma of the family of Specialist Justin Ellsworth, killed in Iraq in November. His family is suing e-mail provider Yahoo! for access to his account.

"If the family can show good cause to have access to the account, then the court may be able to give them access to it and override the contract," explained local attorney Derek Moore.

Yahoo! continues to stick to their policy. After 90 days of inactivity, they will delete any account. And also, they say any rights to a user ID are terminated once the user dies. The terms of service all 40 million Yahoo! users have signed appears to be very clear on that point. Other e-mail providers have included provisions for the transfer of account information after a user's death. But on the information superhighway, these electronic issues are among the legally unanswered.

"As long as the e-mails are held somewhere else, then you're going to have fights like this," said Moore.

And the short-term solutions might be unorthodox. "The individual could certainly leave the password in a will," said Moore. "They could just give access to that password to the family during their lifetime if they wanted to."

The Ellsworth family may never know Justin's final correspondences. As for Mokry: "If that would be the last thing they would have of me, I would want them to have access to it."

But the response is not universal. It's a tangled World Wide Web of privacy issues.

Specialist Ellsworth died on November 3rd. Unless an injunction was issued, the account would be erased by Yahoo! no later than February 1 under their 90 day policy.