Google Inactive Account Manager is a new feature which allows account holders to donate their digital assets to a nominated beneficiary, with implications for anyone writing their will.
Your Google assets could be Google Docs, Gmail, Picasa photos, YouTube videos, or a host of other data.
Inactive Account Manager allows users to determine when their account expires (after, say, 6 or 12 months of inactivity). After that their nominated beneficiary will be provided access to, and the ability to extract, their digital assets. Facebook provides a similar feature which allows family members to create a memorial page for their dead loved one.
These features are particularly relevant to the new EU Data Protection Regulation, currently in draft. It provides individuals with a ‘right to be forgotten’; i.e. the right for people to delete their digital persona. This has met with considerable resistance from Britain’s Information Commissioner and web industry lobbyists who argue it is impractical and costly. Nevertheless, wherever possible, we should still seek to control our digital estate.
It’s a broad, international issue. In the United States it was reported, albeit mistakenly, that Bruce Willis was filing proceedings against Apple for restricting his kids from inheriting his iTunes collection. Related issues were recently raised in a claim made by Capital Records against ReDigi, however.
ReDigi allows members to upload tracks into its cloud service. The original copies are then deleted from their computer. They may then sell “second-hand” digital music online in return for credits to purchase new music. Capital Records successfully claimed that this service infringed its copyright.
It is perhaps easier to justify why music stored in a cloud-based music service, such as Spotify, may not be inherited by beneficiaries. However, even where a cloud subscription service is concerned, beneficiaries should still arguably be able to retain the associated metadata to the catalogue. A beneficiary may then at least reproduce a relative’s catalogue (e.g. discover favourite tracks and how often, where and when they were played).
But what implications do Google Inactive Account Manager and Facebook memorial pages have from a probate perspective? Are these prudent steps to take when writing your will?
Most of us now leave digital footprints that may be lost forever if provisions are not put in place. It is not just the sentimental or personal items stored on social media sites though: the digital world enables finances (PayPal) and other assets (online gaming profiles) to be held online and out of the reach of the persons left to deal with your estate.
One way around this problem is to leave instructions with your will. Details of web addresses and passwords to accounts can be held in a note supplemental to the will to enable executors to readily access them. The important point to note is that when a will goes to probate it becomes a matter of public record, hence such sensitive information must not be put in the will itself.
Another solution comes in the form of a “cyberwill”, an online service offered by the likes of Legacy Locker, AssetLock, Cirrus Legacy and many more. They enable online storage of key account information and directions as to what should happen on death. Cyberwill providers pass this protected information on to named guardians following specified events, such as if an email prompt is unanswered or a death certificate is presented.
The concern with this would be if the accounts were hacked or if there was risk of the information being sold to a third party. Certainly, before placing your digital inheritance in the hands of a third party, it would be prudent to examine their reputation they have for privacy and security. Some online providers may be more trustworthy than others.
Unfortunately due to the rapid evolution of the internet, there has been very little in the way of case law and legislation on the area of succession of digital assets, and with the digital age still young, people writing their will do not often consider the issue. But lawyers will increasingly need to help their clients protect their online interests.
This article was originally published by The Telegraph on 16 April 2013.