BANGALORE: Just this week, the US state of Delaware passed a landmark law giving heirs the rights to the digital legacy of the deceased. In India, too, the issue is finding resonance because the country is home to a large internet user base — about 250 million—that is creating and sharing digital content on a scale never seen before. Facebook will soon have more users in India than anywhere else, Twitter is looking at the country as its next (and potentially the biggest) frontier, and internetenabled business models powering everything from taxi rides (Uber, Ola) to booking a table at a restaurant, are all creating a perfect digital storm.
So what happens to the digital remains that hundreds of millions of users India will leave behind? Like in most parts of the world, users and companies are still dealing with a nebulous regulatory framework and digital ignorance when it comes to plan the afterlife.
From bitcoin wallets, family pictures, personal content to even Facebook pages, there is an evergrowing list of items stored digitally that needs to be managed like any other legacy. A young Google/Gmail user had his parents spend months trying to retrieve his about-to-be-published book, after he died. And a bitcoin miner with currency worth over Rs 5 lakh is wondering how to manage inheritance after he’s dead.
C Suresh, 37, a software engineer based in Bangalore, has been racking his brain trying to find out what to do with bitcoins left behind by his elder brother who died in an accident earlier this year. “All I have is his laptop; the currency has perhaps been stored on some hard drives which we have no clue about,” he said. The challenge with bitcoin is that it needs active development, which is impossible after the miner is gone.
“In the event that there is an afterlife, I assume that the core bitcoin protocol would have been broken and there would be no active development on it,” said Benson Samuel, a bitcoin miner and activist. “This would allow for people to break the latest crypto algorithm that has been used with it.”
Last year, parents of a young Google user in India were struggling to access his email account to retrieve a book the deceased had finished writing. “The existing processes make it very tough and painful for the kin—in this case, the parents had to make requests from India to Pal Alto,” a person familiar with the incident said.
Planned Departure, a UK-based startup helping users manage their digital remains, is seeing increased activity on the ground. The biggest challenge is that many users tend to think of traditional legal heirs while planning digital afterlife. “Our digital assets are so complex that transferring it to legal heirs is not a right way to solve it,” said Komal Joshi, cofounder of Planned Departure.
“For example, if domains I own are transferred to my legal heir and if they are not equipped with the required knowhow, it’s useless.” While social media platforms such as Facebook have focussed policies about creating memorials for the dead, the challenge for those creating them is that they’re not sure if that’s the way the deceased wanted it to be handled.
Joshi referred to an incident about a girl who lost her brother in Iraq and later created a Facebook memorial. “She said some people are fine with a memorial page, but some people would want the page or account to be deleted to ensure that their profile does not appear anywhere. Unfortunately, she would never know,” Joshi said.
Last year, Sukanuta, an MBA graduate working in Delhi, lost her uncle, who was a wildlife photographer. Like many new-age photographers, he saved most of the images on his Google Drive and iCloud. He did not store most of the pictures on the camera itself. “In the hospital, when he was dying of cancer, I kept thinking about all those pictures, but that was not the time to bring it up,” she recalled.
Prashant Mali, an expert in cyber law, is of the view that the law in India is ambiguous about whether online digital properties can be bequeathed to a legal heir. He suggests that the Will should specifically mention the digital properties that are being bequeathed, with details and companies such as Google and Facebook notified so that they can transfer accounts of the deceased to the legal heir.