From The Lansing State Journal:

Yahoo denies family access to slain soldier's e-mail
Frustration rises as parents battle Internet company

Published December 21, 2004

By Jennifer Chambers
Special to the State Journal

WIXOM - Justin M. Ellsworth's family clung to every word that slipped from the 20-year-old Marine's fingertips into e-mails from the battlefront in Iraq.

The messages were brief and optimistic, eager for news from home and written to reassure loved ones that Justin was alive and well.

Ellsworth's father, John, read each one again and again. John Ellsworth last spoke on the telephone to his son Nov. 3, 10 days before Justin was killed by a roadside bomb during a foot patrol in Al Anbar province.

His funeral was held in the Lansing area, close to his grandparents' Eaton Rapids home.

While Justin's body was returned to his family, those e-mails - once a lifeline between the Marine and the dozens of loved ones he left behind - are being held hostage in an unusual cyberspace legal limbo that has pitted his father, who lives in Oakland County, against Internet giant Yahoo.

The case raises significant legal questions for which there appear to be no clear answers.

"I want to be able to remember him in his words," John said. "It's the last thing I have of my son."

It's a new problem in the modern war, one in which families less frequently rely on words written on paper and instead rely on e-mail. The battle for e-mails of people who have died is a problem that could be faced by anyone seeking to retrace the final words of a loved one.

Justin's father is pleading with the company to allow him access to his son's e-mail account to fulfill the family's wish of reading, seeing and knowing the young man's last words, pictures and thoughts from the front lines in Iraq.

The family wants the complete e-mail file that Justin maintained. But without the account's password, which only Justin and Yahoo know, the family's request has been repeatedly denied. In fact, Yahoo policy calls for erasing the entire account if, after 90 days, there is no activity.

John Ellsworth, a police sergeant with Wolverine Lake, is devastated at the prospect of his son's memories being obliterated.

Legal observers are drawing different conclusions on how the case will work out. Some say the e-mail is part of Justin's personal property and would be the property now of his father, who has power of attorney over his son's estate, although such action would likely require a court order.

Others say Yahoo has a contractual obligation to Justin and all e-mail subscribers to protect their confidentiality and privacy - dead or alive.

"I'm not sure the family in this case has any more rights to a private e-mail record once someone is dead than they would have had when he was alive," said Bill McWhirter, who teaches a media ethics course at Michigan State University. "These are private accounts. I'm not sure individuals in their contract would welcome any member of his family going through his e-mails if he were alive."

Yahoo said all e-mail account users agree to the following contract when they sign up for service: Any rights to a member's Yahoo ID or contents within an account terminate upon death. Once a death certificate is received, the contents of the account are permanently erased.

"While we sympathize with any grieving family, Yahoo accounts and any contents therein are nontransferable," Yahoo spokeswoman Karen Mahon said.

John said he and Justin never talked about Justin's e-mail account password. John has tried to guess at his son's secret code, using Justin's childhood nickname - Boomer - and girlfriends' names, family nicknames, anything associated with his son.

"We just can't get it. I'm frustrated with it," John said.

Frank McNelis, a former Air Force officer who practices law in Mount Clemens, said Yahoo could make an exception in this case if it wanted to and believes the family could legally challenge the company if they can show the e-mails are part of Justin's private property.

"Who are they kidding? I think it's outrageous. To begin with, these communications came from a war zone. He took the account out for that reason, as many men do that for that reason," McNelis said.

Justin's family has not given up trying to solve the mystery of the e-mail password.

John and stepmother Debbie try new words several times a day, every day. Debbie, who was hospitalized last week due to stress, went online from her hospital bed and attempted to find the magic password. In November, Justin had limited access to the Internet. His stepmother strongly suspects Justin was stockpiling e-mails and was waiting to send them out when he had access to the Internet again.

"He had his computer with him (in Iraq). He could have been writing messages and saving them and sending them later," she said.

Contact Jennifer Chambers of The Detroit News at (248) 647-7402 or jchambers@detnews.com.

Last modified date and time: 01/17/2005 8:43