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Your ‘digital footprint’ – your online life after death
Whilst most of us prefer not to think about our death, we all know that we should make a will to ensure that our loved ones know what we would like done with our assets – our books, cd collections, dvds, electrical goods, jewellery and other valuable property – when we die. However, with the dawn of the digital age, our assets are becoming increasingly intangible; our music is more likely to be downloaded and stored on an iPod than bought in the physical form of a cd, our bookshelves are looking sparser as we buy more and more books for our e-readers, and even treasured family photographs are more likely to be stored digitally via services like Facebook or Instagram, than kept in an old fashioned photograph album. As well as the things we lease or store online, most people also have several other online accounts, for things like email and personal blogs, as well as subscriptions, access to banking, gaming and even accounts that contain financial assets, such as PayPal. A recent survey of 2,000 people, by computer cloud firm Rackspace, showed that 53% of those questioned held treasured possessions in these services. The same survey estimates that by 2020 a third of people are expected to download all of their music and that 66% of people rely on cloud computing services every day without realising it. Rackspace estimate that Britons currently have some £2.3billion in digital possessions and this is set to increase.
All of this means that passing our assets on to our loved ones has become more complex. Whilst expressing your wishes in a will remains relatively simple, the terms and conditions which apply online accounts can vary and getting what you wish for your online assets may not be straightforward.
An important issue has arisen with cloud services – applications such as email and social media that allow you to store large amounts of data and communication material with them, as opposed to in the memory of your laptop, tablet or phone. Whilst it might seem simple matter to bequeath your Facebook, Twitter or iTunes accounts to someone – your ability to do so is governed by the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) – the terms and conditions governing use of the site – which you clicked and agreed to when you opened your account. Most EULAs, including those for Facebook and Twitter, have a clause which stipulates that you can’t pass passwords or access to your account (and the data contained within it) onto a third party and which can mean that when you die they can refuse a third party – even a named executor – access to your accounts.
Music and books – to buy or let?
Passing on your music or books is equally complex. Whilst data stored to a hard drive can be passed on relatively simply, the fact that you are unlikely to actually own any of the music or books you have downloaded, means that your beneficiaries may not be able to use this content on other devices or using other accounts. Most download companies – such as Apple, and Amazon, issue you with a licence to download and play the music or read the book which means your digital music and literature content is effectively leased not owned. Whilst it remains unclear how providers will treat downloaded content after a death, they currently have every right to revoke your licence on your death.
Planning your digital demise
It’s clear that there are many legal considerations regarding your online property and what you are entitled to pass on is changing as rapidly as the technology that hosts it. However, whilst the law may be struggling to catch up with the rate at which what we own and how we own it is changing, the technology industry itself is already miles ahead of the game. Online services, such as Cirrus Legacy and Legacy Locker, enable you to store all your passwords, and allows your nominated ‘digital executor’ to access the accounts you wish him or her to access when you die. Other online services, such as the ominous sounding Death Switch, can in be set up to ‘check in’ with you on a regular basis and if, after an agreed period of time, you don’t reply, it will assume you have died and, on your behalf, send the emails and messages you have left with them to loved ones.
It seems that even death can’t escape the march of digital technology and that we all need to take steps now to protect our future digital inheritance.