What happens to your cyber life when your real life ends?

Ross Greenwood speaks to Professor Adam Steen, from Charles Sturt University, about a new study showing over 71 per cent of those who had digital assets indicated they were unaware of what would happen to them when they died or become disabled.

What happens to your cyber life when your real world ends?

Ross Greenwood:  Great to have your company here on Work. Life. Money going right across Australia. Everybody understands when it comes to the end of their life that they will normally have a will, and you would also understand that that will, will basically distribute your assets to your loved ones and your family, friends the lost dogs home, whatever you like. According to your wishes, according to the wishes that has legally set down in that will.

There’s some parts of your life that really create a bit of a gray area. What about your information? We often hear these days about your digital footprint. We often hear about the whole notion about people trying to have more knowledge about you. The interesting side of it is, just because you have physically died it does not mean that your image, that your digital footprint has necessarily disappeared.

In fact, it would go on, if you think about it. Then quite clearly for some that also has some form of value, and increasingly if you think about things such as we’ve talked about these on the program, the new currencies. The so-called cyber currencies, bitcoins and so forth. What happens to those, if you’ve got those assets? It’s not actual real money, it’s not a physical asset, but it’s actually worth something. In this regard, it’s interesting to see a new study that’s come out. Leading up this study the professor of Finance from Charles Sturt University, Adam Stein who’s online right now. Many thanks for your time. Adam, I appreciate your time very much.

Interview with Adam Stein, Professor of Finance from Charles Sturt University

Adam Stein: No worries at all.

Ross Greenwood:  Okeydokes. Just take me through this because quite clearly is that the issues of privacy once you have died that become a problem with many of your things that you have online. I’m thinking here about– It might be your iTunes accounts, it might be your social media accounts, your Instagram account for example. There are images there that are yours, and then account technically is yours, or is it simply a case that some in some particular circumstances might have a value, might have an actual asset value?

Adam Stein:  Well, yes. I mean, that did both selling points but the fact of the matter is that each of the service providers that it– Whether it’s your email or whether it’s Yahoo, LinkedIn, iTunes whatever it is, Facebook. They’ve all got different contractual relationships, different terms in their contracts. Some of the stuff may be personally valuable to you, as you said, some might have a commercial monetary value. The thing is that all the contracts are different, so when you become disabled or when you die, it’s each company has a different way of dealing with these things.

Ross Greenwood:  Give me some of the examples, and where people could get themselves into strife, with those differences in the policies when a person dies.

Adam Stein:  Okay. For example, iTunes. People buy iTunes, they download music, but a lot of people aren’t aware that the fact is that you can’t pass that on to anyone else. You’re in fact renting the music from the provider. Yahoo and LinkedIn, if they find out that the person has died then they automatically delete those accounts. Facebook, they have a different way of dealing with it. If you go the Facebook website they talk about memorializing someone’s Facebook page, which means it’s basically frozen in time. But none of these things mean that– We don’t have legislation in Australia that enables fiduciaries or executives of wills, for example, to go in and retrieve or access people’s digital assets when they die.

Ross Greenwood:  Okay, because if I think about this, a person who has got, say– And I mean there would be some out there, or even businesses or owners of businesses, whose Instagram account, or maybe their Facebook account would have a monetary value, mainly because business can be done from it. There would be a lot of followers. Unless somebody is able to basically take that over as an asset if that is frozen in time or indeed if it’s subsumed by the owner of that web service, the value inside that account could very well be disappeared. Given the fact that many businesses these days are online businesses, if they’re sole traders that could also cause fundamental problems to the inheritance for the family.

Adam Stein:  Absolutely, and this is one of the things that we’re saying to businesses. You make sure that your agreement is we’ve not you as an individual but with the business. There is continuity of service. That’s a absolutely fundamental thing. The other thing is, when people are planning for their estate, it’s not just the preparation of a will it’s important, it’s the digital asset and we’re even saying to people, “You should make catalogue your digital assets.” Think about them well you’ve got all these medical records, you’ve got banking records, you’ve got domain names, Facebook accounts, all these stuff. They’re all important.

Ross Greenwood:  I’ve never stopped and thought about that, because one of the fundamental issues I would have thought would have been passwords on accounts. Now, I’m certain unless you had a password to somebody else’s Facebook account, unless they left that in some secure area you might never ever be able to capitalize on this especially if say, for example, there was a business opportunity there, by virtue of the fact that nobody knew what your password was.

Adam Stein:  Exactly. In the United States they’ve enacted this legislation and I won’t go through the acronym but basically what it means is that you– The legislation in America, in most American states it regulates the access of fiduciaries to people’s digital assets on death. We don’t have that legislation in Australia, where various state governments are contemplating that. That American legislation, it says when fiduciaries, when trustees, and executives actually it specifies the terms under which they can access someone’s digital assets.

Ross Greenwood:  Because this survey you’ve done as indicated that not only are people fundamentally unaware of this issue, but the vast majority would have no idea as to what to do about the issue, even if they understood it was something that they should think about, which is why we’re raising the point now.

Adam Stein:  That’s right. If you get into a dispute with some of these companies, because they are global companies, if you get in dispute with them about accessing digital assets of a deceased person, you have to win to introduce a court action in, for example, in the case of Google and Facebook in the California courts, now how easy is that for an Australian?

Ross Greenwood:  Nearly impossible. But the other thing you also– You know when there are updates to these various services, so Google doesn’t update or Apple doesn’t update, or whatever it might be. Then they ask you, “Here are the terms and conditions. We’ve just done an update. Do you agree with this?” and you just go click and you don’t read a single word of it. The fact is I’m presuming most of that fine print that you’re talking about, is actually in those service agreements that I have never read in my life.

Adam Stein:  That’s exactly right, that’s right there.

Ross Greenwood:  Therefore people have got to understand as we move more retailing online, as more business is moved online, the way in which you structure that business is absolutely vital to make certain in the case of an untimely death, you can maximize the return from that digital asset.

Adam Stein:  That’s right. And the issue is as we become more digital, more online, and more internationalized in terms of the internet platform, governments have to catch up now. The law has to catch up with commercial reality, and we are sadly lacking baggage behind.

Ross Greenwood:  Tell you what, great to have you on the program professor of Finance from Charles Sturt University, Adam Stein, on what happens to your digital life when your actual life expires. You can hear here the minefield that it can become. Adam, we appreciate your time in the program today.

Adam Stein:  Thanks very much Ross.

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