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Alankrita Anand | The News Minute | July 22, 2014 | 01:52 pm IST The gift of immortality is something that a lot of us long for, and in some ways we may have this gift- in the form of our eternal online presence. Nobody knows what happens after death, even as theories abound. But in our virtual lives, we leave behind an eternal legacy, mostly thanks to our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram profiles. Ever wondered what happens to these “online assets” once we die? On Facebook and Twitter, our online activities may be mostly about socializing and networking but on portals like personal mails, a great amount of serious, work-related data may be stored. What happens to this data, many of which could be crucial? Surely, a Yahoo or a Facebook would have access to all the data ever accessed, shared and stored. But if you get to decide who will bequeath your physical assets to (unless there’s no will left behind), shouldn't you also be able to decide what happens to your digital assets.  Deciding what happens to one’s digital assets or data is not only about how the person wants to be remembered but about keeping the data in a secure manner or ensuring that it goes to the right hands.  How many times do we read a website’s “terms of service” or “privacy policy”? Not many times, if not never.  But now, with the amount of online data produced and shared by people, companies like Facebook and Google are coming up with options that enable the account-holder to decide what happens if and when they die. The concept of digital wills (wills that deal with digital assets) is also catching up, especially in the West. Facebook has an option whereby friends and family of the deceased can write to the admin asking that the person’s account be “memorialized”. Amongst other things, memorializing an account ensures that it does not appear on friend suggestions and birthday notifications. However, many a time friends and family want to keep the memory of their loved ones alive by keeping the account active. According to reports, there have been a couple of cases, in India and abroad, where family and friends have demanded that they be given access to the deceased accounts. In one case Facebook gave a grieving father the access to release his deceased son’s “look back video”. But in another case in the United States, Yahoo! was taken to court for not granting access to a deceased account holder’s account to his parents. Open, the magazine reported a case where the mother of a deceased photographer has been maintaining his Facebook profile by uploading photographs and statuses saying that it was what he would have wanted. But some of his friends are rather disconcerted by the idea; one of them says that it is “creepy”. According to the same report, the making of digital wills and appointment of digital prosecutors is being encouraged in India. However, these wills have no legal backing. The report says that it is neither covered under the Information Technology Act of 2000 or the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 or the Indian Succession Act of 1925. The estimated number of “dead” Facebook users is 30 million according to one news report which goes on to say that by 2060, the number of dead people are expected to outnumber the living. This is mostly because of the changing age demographics of Facebook users. In such a scenario, it is only necessary that sites introduce options like “memorializing” and “inactivate account manager”. The latter is a Google service. With a more spooky tone, there is also a site called “Deathswitch.com” which enables one to create a map of what happens to one’s online assets on one’s death. But the matter is complicated by the contentious question of who owns an online account- the account holder or the website or service provider? This is further complicated by the lack of a law in most countries and the fact that service providers (whose terms and conditions are to be followed) and the user are often located in two different countries. Hence, even a law might not help.
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