Technology and the Law – Our Electronic Afterlives

In recent years, with the near-total societal adoption of The Internet as a tool for communication, we have moved many our daily activities from the real world to cyberspace. Now, in addition to owning physical things in the world, many of us also own what have come to be known as “digital assets.” Property rights in digital assets are confusing, and are usually controlled by the terms-of-service agreement of each online company. Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, Twitter, and most other internet-based applications or companies each have their own terms-of-service agreements.

Problems usually arise when there is a need to delegate management of digital assets to an agent, if you become incapacitated, or to an executor after you die. If the terms-of-service don’t allow you to appoint an agent or executor, and there is no state law in place allowing you to do so (more in this later), your options are to violate the terms-of-service agreement or lose access to your digital assets, possibly forever.

Fortunately, many online companies are offering solutions to this problem. Facebook now allows you to choose a Legacy Contact to manage your memorialized account, after you die. Google will allow you to select an Inactive Account Manager to deal with your data if you die or become incapacitated and unable to continue using Google’s services. Some services, such as Twitter, won’t let you grant management power to an agent or executor, but they will allow a designated person to deactivate your account.

Unfortunately, these new offerings are delivered by individual companies, who can change the rules at any time. Further, there are just so many online companies that the various terms-of-service agreements are very difficult to keep track of. Without a proper legal remedy in place, we are at the mercy of our internet overlords. The legal world has taken notice, and some comprehensive solutions are being proposed. Click here to learn about legislation that has been proposed in Pennsylvania.

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