Digital assets: technological files filled with our images, multimedia and textual content. Evidently, it is very easy to forget how our digital assets can quickly become an extension of ourselves throughout our lives. I have yet to encounter a student, for example, who does not have a social media account of some sort, use a computer, or who shuns digital assets entirely. With the digital world being a late 20th and 21st century phenomenon, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the moral and ethical question of what to do with people’s digital assets when they pass on is unchartered territory. Such a question is not thought about by young and old users of social media. Social media is for use in the present, here and now. It would probably be deemed macabre to discuss how you are going to put a plan in place for the future for your nearest and dearest, so that they can deal with your digital assets. However, ethical issues arising from how to sensitively approach digital assets belonging to a deceased person is becoming a recognised issue, and one which is in need of increased awareness.
Part of the problem stems from society’s focus on the present and the social media culture which results from this. We are taught that our concern should not lie with recently invalidated files belonging to a deceased member of society, but with the need to be able to counter cyber hacking threats and how to harness digital assets to our advantage within the community. This is promulgated by the government and organisations such as GCHQ and MI5, and rightly so: cyber terrorism and hacking threats are very real dangers to society. Indeed, this filters into cultural trends. A Google search of “protect my digital assets” creates a result brimming with anti-virus software, insurance policies and private company digital plans to combat such digital hacking threats. In contrast, assets belonging to a deceased citizen are perceived as no longer being of use, a waste of space, something which can be left in cyberspace indefinitely with no further attention as the individual concerned no longer constitutes a potential threat to society.
Yet moral questions surrounding how to sensitively deal with the digital assets of a recently deceased member of society need greater attention and cannot be dismissed. Private companies are beginning to realise the importance of the problem. American company CNBC offers digital estate plans, appealing to those who are concerned with how to cope with the need to access online files of deceased loved ones. The company states how, “left without a game plan, a lifetime’s worth of online files and accounts becomes inaccessible, creating incredible stress for already bereaved family and loved ones who are left to settle an estate”. This succinctly gets to the heart of the issue. We do not know our loved one’s digital passwords, nor would we wish to when they are alive, yet clearly it is an issue which arises when a loved one moves on without giving information on how to access their digital assets.
Evan Caroll, author of a recent article for the Gazette and co-founder of Digital Beyond, agrees that the issue is a serious one. He emphasises the potential legal and ethical issues, saying: “Today an individual can own digital assets on numerous computer systems that they do not own, and so they are not physically located with their estate.” He then goes on to explain what happens to our assets on individual social media platforms. Interestingly, two giants of social media, Facebook and Twitter, have differing company policy on what happens to accounts belonging to deceased members. Facebook states that the account can be removed, but that memorialisation of the account requires proof of death: the password and username will no longer work. On Twitter, the removal of the account requires a written request including a death certificate and proof of identity. In contrast, Youtube do not permit anyone access to the account of the deceased user, stating that the rights to the account expire when the user passes away. Other social media platforms have no policy in place for how to approach issues arising from digital assets belonging to the deceased. Hence, Caroll concludes that the best way to approach the issue is through advanced planning and incorporating digital assets into your estate plans.
However, increased intervention and planning on how to address the issue of digital assets when we die has proved controversial, particularly in America. In Delaware a law was passed in summer 2014 which allowed executors access to accounts of the deceased without a court order, unless the deceased has expressed otherwise in writing. From a positive perspective, this can give families closure and hope. Estate lawyer Andy Blair, writing for the Wall Street Journal in February this year, said it is encouraging, as, “without a law like this, I may never get access to those [digital assets]”. Conversely, the law has been perceived as a breach of privacy, conflicting with existing federacy law. Although more exclusive to American law, such issues translate into critical ethical questions. Who has the right to access private accounts of a deceased citizen within the very public sphere of social media? Where is the line between intervention for closure for relatives, and intervention for the sake of accessing private information?
Perhaps it is the pervasive squeamishness over death in western culture which is preventing further steps towards tackling the ethical issues surrounding digital assets, hindering societal ability in coming to terms with such moral issues. Realistically, it is a very select few who will be organised enough or willing to face their own mortality whilst alive, and set aside time to ensure that a plan for the use and access to personal digital assets is in place. However, in order to prevent emotional stress and trouble further down the line, one thing is clear: when executing a will and planning your estates for when you pass on, digital assets ought to be included, regardless of how irrelevant it seems today, in order to address the sensitive issue of what happens to your digital assets when you die.