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Digital Inheritance
Cover Stories Series 2011> Digital Inheritance
UPDATED: November 28, 2011 NO. 48 DECEMBER 1, 2011
Protecting Digital Afterlife
Controversies over the inheritance of online profiles highlight the urgent need for legislation on the status of virtual assets

The dilemma has also boosted the profile of a new variety of entrepreneurs: digital heritage management service providers. This new breed of online business seeks to monetize Internet users' desire to manage their online lives after their deaths.

Some companies promise to manage the details of customers' digital death by storing their passwords and keeping records of who gets access to certain information. The companies will send their customers e-mails regularly to make sure that they are still alive. If a customer fails to reply to any of the periodic confirmation e-mails, the company will e-mail his or her accounts and passwords to the designated heirs.

A Nanjing-based company offers a cyberspace heritage management service, which implants spy software into customers' personal computers. When the spy software discovers that the users haven't signed into their instant message accounts or e-mail accounts for a set period of time, the company will contact the designated heirs to pass down details of the customers' digital assets.

This company also offers an "account graveyard" service, to obliterate content its users would prefer not to linger on after them. Reserving one "graveyard vacancy" costs users 10 yuan ($1.6) per year.

While China's colossal population of Internet users, about 500 million, or 40 percent of the country's population, means an enormous potential market for digital heritage planning services, these start-ups in the world of online death still face challenges. Besides convincing perspective customers that the heritage management company they choose will still be a going enterprise by the time they die, the companies are also subjected to the risk of compensation if the accounts and passwords they are entrusted with are stolen by hackers.

Death maybe a certainty but the lifespan and success of an online start-up remains extremely hard to predict.

Policies on Users' Digital Heritage

Facebook profiles can be switched to "memorial" mode when an individual dies. Someone must submit a request for a profile to be memorialized, which deactivates certain features and resets various privacy controls, converting the profile to a site where friends can leave remembrances.

Under Twitter's Deceased Policy, which was released in August 2010, if Twitter is notified that a user has passed away, it can remove the deceased person's account or assist family members in saving a backup of his or her public Tweets. Twitter does not allow access to the account or disclose other non-public information regarding the account.

Yahoo will not grant relatives access to deceased users' accounts unless there is a court order from a judge. According to Yahoo's terms of service, its accounts are non-transferable and any rights to a user's Yahoo ID or contents within the account terminate upon their death. Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, a user's account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.

Google says that "in rare cases," it may be able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of a deceased user, but "the application to obtain e-mail content is a lengthy process."

Hotmail requires heirs to send the company an e-mail to request the preservation of the e-mail content for a deceased user's account while heirs can gather the necessary paperwork to gain access to the account. Hotmail preserves the e-mail content for six months and deletes the account if it has not received the necessary paperwork at the end of six months.

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