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Back to the future

I was reminded about my post about digital inheritance a year or so ago by a couple of articles on DNAIndia and USAToday.

The USAToday article is basically an update on those I linked to before but the DNAIndia is more wide ranging and worth a read. The articles highlight the fact that there has been progress on the issue, though much more needs to be addressed. There are a few important points to make:

Firstly, more and more of our assets are accessed online Secondly, more and more of our assets are actually digital in nature; Thirdly, more and more information about us is kept online by a wide variety of companies.

How and why companies will grant access to this information and/or assets will be important in the future. It will also be important for companies. More and more employees are working from home nowadays, often using their online hotmail or gmail accounts for work.

However some of the information contained in those emails, the contact details themselves or both may be the property of the company - even sensitive commercial secrets. Firms within sensitive industries, such as solicitors will probably continue to want to keep control over this information by ensuring that the emails are hosted on their own servers but I know a lot of business people who extol the virtures of googlemail and google apps at every opportunity.

I don't find it difficult to imagine a situation where a salesperson with a sensitive database, an agent or a mobile employee were to die without having ensured the company or client had the sort of up-to-date information needed to complete an important transaction. Who would want to be the employer contacting the deceased's relatives or executors at that point? My previous post (link above) highlighted some of the fledgling services which have been launched over the past few years to address the problem. I personally doubt at the moment any of them have really hit the nail on the head but perhaps one will emerge soon to address the problem.

This time around I've found myself thinking more about the law. For instance: which law applies? The recent VAT and corporation tax cases involving multinational companies structuring their groups to pay the minimum of tax has highlighted how such global giants cross international jurisdictions. What are the chances, for instance, that your contractual relationship with Drop Box or Amazon will be with a UK based company? What if a cloud music storage company is based in a civil law jurisdiction with enforced inheritance laws? The USAToday article points out the procedures that many of the larger online giants are putting into place to allow access to relatives. However the relatives may not actually be the owners of the information. Imagine if, for instance, a director of a company kept a significant database or a file in cloud storage? How accommodating are these large conglomerates going to be when you finally get through to their customer care centre and explain that you need access to someone else's account really urgently? How do you prove you own the information? How could it be possible to prevent executors or relatives accessing that information?Of course the first suggestion to be made is to enact stringent company email and internet policies. However what happens when an employee ignores it or the managing director keeps all of their contacts and sensitive emails in a private account? Annoying for a short period of illness but possibly disastrous to an intellectual property or knowledge-intensive company. If what you sell is information, once you've lost it, or lost control of it, you have a serious problem. I think the basic issues - those surrounding transfers of email accounts and basic consumer storage information - will probably be just that: quite basic.

Companies like Apple are notorious for their stringent terms of use and may decide to restrict transfers of media files but there is no incentive for Google or Microsoft to make these things difficult. I cannot see the differences between the major legal jurisdictions posing any difficulties here either. Although there may be occasions when it's difficult to draw a line between a valuable commodity - such as a huge online movie collection, for which it is reasonable to expect only one person to inherit the licence to copy etc - and personal information - such as email correspondence, which you might expect to be accessible to all the residuary beneficiaries - I expect common sense will find a reasonable set of conventions.

However the ownership of IP rights and the right to access data about yourself held by companies does differ between jurisdictions. I haven't got the time to consider these issues in detail now but I think I'll probably be updating our page on what to do after a death to mention this.

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