The Second International Death Online Research Symposium – Summary of the first day!

I had the privilege of attending The Second International Death Online Research Symposium, held at the Kingston University, London, UK on August 17th – 18th, 2015. It was good to meet others, who like us, are researching death in the digital age.

Death Online Research is a network of international researchers interested in the study of how dying, death and the afterlife is mediated and expressed online. The network statement reminds me of the reasons why Planned Departure was created

“When an increasingly large part of life, from the most intimate to the most officious is manifest online, it should be of no surprise that death is there as well. We are able to relate to death online in different ways, e.g. before and after an actual physical death, or in more metaphorical ways within online forums, gaming environments and so on. Alongside the social media conversations, we have sites for mourning and remembrance as well as for legal advice, casket sale and funeral services. As the median age of Internet population continues to go up, matters connected to the physical death will have increasing importance…’

This event had many different aspects related to digital death. However, there was one common theme in most of the findings from research, which was explained by Dorthe in her opening keynote – Many death related practices are actually the online part of a larger picture counting both on and offline practices and being related to socio-cultural practices in all kinds of settings and contexts.

After Dorthe’s keynote, next section of the conference was on (Re)mediating death and bereavement .

This panel session was started by Katrin Doeveling from the University of Leipzig  and she discussed how online bereavement differs depending on the loss. She also highlighted the need for platforms like this and support provided by these platforms.

IMG_4458Online bereavement platforms provide opportunities for emotional communication within a group of like-minded, yet anonymous grievers.

In the next session, Anna Haverinen from the university of Turku discussed identities and how identity of the deceased and the bereaved is discovered in the process of creating memorial website. It was very interesting to understand that memorials are like caricatures highlighting only one or a few aspects of the individuals. It solidifies our belief that except deceased, no one else really knows how deceased would have liked to be remembered.

IMG_4471I really liked the next session from Dick Kasperowski and Kjetil Sandvik about the bereaved parents and the need to de-tabooisation of talking about death and specifically death of a children.

This talk was followed by the talk of Jo Bell on the experience of bereaved in the aftermath of  a suicide. She found that platforms like Facebook provided an excellent platform to support vulnerable people and to increase awareness and raise more funds for the suicide prevention.

IMG_4472Next few sessions were on the use of technology in this space. It was interesting to see the use of augmented reality apps for gravestone, new digital memorial platforms in Denmark and competitors of Planned Departure, all the way from Israil.

We believe that all these platforms will eventually make it easier for people to talk about death in the digital age!

Final session of this action packed day was from Vared (Rose) Shavit, who is an independent researcher on the topic of digital death. Rose highlighted the problem clearly with the results of er survey which were presented in a paper titled – “Online Legacies : Online Service Providers and the Public – a Clear Gap” 

IMG_4512This session was excellent and gave us opportunity to discuss the solutions we currently have in the market to address this problem and ways in which these solutions could be enhanced. It was good to see that the product road map we have in place is in line with the enhancements people are looking for! However, everybody agreed that more than anything else, we need to increase awareness about the complexities of dying in the digital age!

Second day of this conference was equally amazing and gave a lot more insight about digital death! Stay tuned for the next post and please share this summary with people who couldn’t attend this conference!

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Good but not enough

WebOfDigital Legacy.001Recently Facebook released its legacy contact feature in the UK. This is a welcome move by Facebook and highlights the importance of ‘digital legacy’.

However, our digital life and digital footprint goes beyond Facebook and Google. We have pointed out the enormous difficulties loved ones can face trying to unravel their deceased’s digital property. 

While Louise Palmer’s story is still fresh in our minds, story of Susan Rowan is surfacing digital legacy problems with another internet giant – Skype.

Susan tried to sort out her husband’s financial affairs after he died of cancer in January. She tried to close his online accounts but was faced with a long painful process of dealing with customer support centres of the online services.

Her experience with Skype left her feeling distressed. To begin with, it was difficult for Susan to contact their customer service over the phone. She had to use web chat and then they refused to refund £25.46 credit to her.

There are many more such cases of family members getting affected by lack of access to digital accounts.

At Planned Departure, our vision is to empower individual to take control of digital life and digital legacy.

The media coverages and now solution from Facebook are helpful in promoting the cause of digital legacy. The UK Law Society has advised people to leave a digital legacy after death, and an increasing number of lawyers are becoming vocal on the same issue.

There is still a long way to go and we need your support!

Please join Planned Departure or contact us for offering digital legacy solution to your clients.

Posted in Digital afterlife, digital assets, digital death, digital legacy, digital legacy service, electronic legacy, Entrepreneurship, Story, Uncategorized, wills | Leave a comment

Life in the Cyberlane

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Oh how things have changed.

Around 600 BC, Athenian statesman and law maker, Solon, was credited with the introduction into Greek law of wills. Prior to this, no man in Greece was allowed to make a will; all his assets at death belonged to his family. The terms of Solon’s law bear much resemblance to what we have under UK law today.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s, some 2,500 years on, that the real winds of change were about to have a fundamental impact on our personal assets. And the origins of these winds? Cyberspace!

But let’s go back just a few years to the early 1980s when these winds were little more than just a soft breeze. Microsoft ruled the world, our computers being largely DOS-based and essentially stand-alone word processors. The World Wide Web, emails, social media, Second Life and fiat currencies were all at least a decade or more away.

With the introduction of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web in 1993, that early breeze started to gather intensity. The computer slowly evolved from a word processor into an Internet portal that became the primary means of people interacting with the world around them.

The turn of the second millennium and the spinnakers are up and the sails are full as we race into the digital era. Not only are we now using keyboard and mouse to connect with the world at large, but the introduction of VoIP has meant that even telephone services are transmitted over the Internet. I’m sure the song made famous by jazz musician Louis Armstrong in 1968, “What a Wonderful World”, was not based on the world that was beginning to dominate our lives.

Indeed, for many of us, the transformation into the Cyberworld was so subtle that we didn’t even realise what was happening around us – until there was a power failure!

The Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s inconceivable to think that we could do anything, professionally or personally, without it. And therein lies a conundrum.

Solon set the scene for the disposal of our assets in accordance with our wishes following death, but in the Cyberworld in which we now reside, we have a number of very different asset classes. We are accumulating vastly more digital assets than we are physical assets and the legal system that should effectively deal with these types of assets is woefully behind the times.

Probate as arrived in Cyberspace but there are few who are capable of taking care of its inhabitants. In fact, such is the pace of technological change that many lawyers are suggesting the legal system may never catch up.

Does it really matter that the law is not up-to-date with regard to probate and digital assets? Without addressing specifics, having a will should cover all our assets – both physical and digital – should it not? The answer to the first question is an absolute YES and the answer to the second, sadly, is no.

As in the real world, life in Cyberspace varies and each decedent is going to present numerous challenges for the surrogate/executor and his or her legal advisors. As we have said in the past, just determining what online accounts a decedent has can be the first major challenge. Even when these accounts have beed identified, access to them will need to be gained.

Being an inanimate object, the computer is not able to make a rational judgement as to whether a user should have access to the privilege being requested (accessing files for example). For many of us, security revolves around the use of passwords. So, without a human to monitor the transaction, the assumption is made that if the user has the right password, then the user is the person who he or she claims to be – or at least has been duly authorised by the legitimate owner of the password.

With online accounts we use passwords and other security tools to protect our valuable property. In many cases, terms and conditions relating to usernames and passwords make it binding on the individual not to share these with anyone else.

In a study by private banking organisation US Trust, it was reported that of the wealthiest respondents, almost 50 percent regularly change their passwords to protect anything stored electronically. Probate estate may not always be required, but in many cases estate administration lawyers are suggesting that it would be desirable to establish one in order to give the personal representative of the decedent access to cyber property.

The most effective way for people to protect their digital estates is not in a conventional will, but in a digital will allows individuals to inventory all their digital assets, including usernames, passwords and postmortem instructions. A digital surrogate or executor is named by the asset owner and this person is subsequently provided access to the digital property upon satisfactory provision of proof of death or permanent incapacity. The digital executor can then download, delete or provide to beneficiaries such assets in accordance with the instructions of the decedent.

Would Solon be turning in his grave if he could see the position of our laws today regarding wills? You can bet your last Bitcoin he would!

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Digital Assets Postmortem – Probate versus Policy

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Death in Cyberspace could have been taken directly from a Flash Gordon comic strip: Flash Gordon in combat with Ming the Merciless, the evil ruler of the planet Mongo.

It’s a bit more serious than that but, nonetheless, it makes for an interesting story.

Digital death is becoming an expanding area of law that is attracting considerable comment and interest from a plethora of parties. Much of this interest has stemmed from the media’s capitalising on the frenzy surrounding social media sites (such as Facebook) and the deaths of account holders. Parents, on the one hand, are demanding access to their deceased child’s account while the social networks argue the issue of privacy and the Terms and Conditions agreed at the time of opening an account.

Some progress has been made, with Facebook implementing its “memorialising” feature, allowing friends and families to request that a decedent’s account become effectively frozen whilst still providing access by family and friends.

Yet this amenity fails to resolve more substantive issues created by a digital passing, such as who can dictate the fate of a loved one’s account, over what time period should a memorialised presence be maintained and whether memorialisation is what the decedent would truly have wanted.

A death in cyberspace is a novel issue for many lawyers and presents some interesting challenges that society as a whole hasn’t fully come to grips with. It’s a quiet revolution that is rapidly coming to the probate and estate planning world.

Aside from social media accounts there are many other digital assets that are creating equally difficult issues.

Take for example your website. Is it hosted in the UK, in an Asian or European country, or perhaps in the USA? And what about your email accounts? Where are they held? In the event you become permanently disabled or you die, which country’s property laws apply?

And then there are issues relating to online payment accounts, virtual currencies and reward cards. Online payment mechanisms such as e-Bay, PayPal and Amazon will usually have traditional bank accounts linked to them, so it might be unlikely that cash balances will exist in the online accounts. However, this will definitely not be the case in every situation, requiring attorneys and executors to thoroughly check the online accounts for pending refunds and credits.

The situation with online accounts can be made even more difficult if the email address of the account holder is unknown. Often with no physical address and communication being made only by email (often to an enquiries@ address), dealing with these entities is generally more difficult than dealing with high street banks.

Additionally, with the increasing numbers of online-only banks beginning to emerge, attorneys’ and executors’ ability to continue to manage such accounts digitally may will depend on the terms and conditions of the bank.

Reward cards are a common inclusion in most people’s wallets and will include those from supermarkets, fuel companies, airlines and hotels. Whether or not the value of these schemes can be used by an attorney on behalf of an adult, or transferred after death, depends on the organisation administering the scheme.

Some of the big supermarkets provide for rewards to be transferrable on death, but other organisations – such as airlines and hotel groups – state that loyalty points that are unused at the time of death will be cancelled, together with membership of the scheme.

As the digital asset stakes in the cyberworld continue to rise, the challenge of finding a standard dispositional protocol for these assets may face competing power extremes. On one side of this continuum we have traditional property law, often adequately covered in probate. On the other side, however, we have corporate policy, manifested typically as a User Agreement or Terms of Service.

Contrary to what these extremes might suggest in terms of the best solutions to the issues raised by digital death, viable compromise solutions do not yet exist between these two legal extremes. One way forward would be to find a mid-continuum solution lying somewhere between probate law and corporate contractual policy that would serve the greatest number of societal interests.

Dealing with digital assets under a power of attorney or a Will can present challenges and will be an area of the law that attracts a lot of media attention.

Even though many digital assets may have more of an emotional or sentimental significance rather than financial value, it is an area of law that is beginning to raise new challenges for legal advisers and probate lawyers.

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What’s it worth?

Les Horribles Cernettes
Few will doubt that digital photography has overtaken conventional film for amateur and professional photographers. With our daily use of social media networks – Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and others – it’s easy to understand why. Once captured, digital photographs are already in a format that makes them incredibly easy to use and share. Digital is about sharing the content now and not so much about sharing photographic creations.

With point-and-click technology, we tend to take our photos for granted. Unlike analogue images we shot onto 35mm film and paid the processing fee to have developed, we only keep the digital images we want, the others we simply delete.

Smartphones, with their gigabyte storage, sophisticated lenses, built-in filters and the ability to automatically apply single-shot HDR (high-dynamic range) processing, have become a valid camera line for photography. They’re easily portable and we have them on us almost 24/7.

So, we snap away, download those images we want to keep: some going into cloud storage, others onto various other storage devices and some will even be used on our websites.

Unless you’re a professional photographer, these images will generally only have sentimental value. Or will they?

Not having a crystal ball makes it difficult to look into the future. Take a look at the picture above and place a value on the image. Does it have any financial value or is it just something of a sentimental reflection for those involved.

The girls, from left to right, are Angela Higney, Michele de Gennaro, Colette Marx-Neilsen and Lynn Veronneau. They made up a group called Les Horribles Cernettes and the picture was the first photographic image published on the World Wide Web.

Silvano de Gennaro, an analyst in the Computer Science department at CERN (the European research organisation based in Switzerland that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world) who helped form the band, said that Les Cernettes were the subject of the first photo of a band on the Web.

“Back in 1992, after their show at the CERN Hardronic Festival, my colleague Tim Berners-Lee asked me for a few scanned photos of “the CERN girls” to publish them on some sort of information system he had just invented, called the “World Wide Web”. I had only a vague idea of what that was, but I scanned some photos on my Mac and FTPed them to Tim’s now famous “info.cern.ch”. How was I to know that I was passing a historical milestone, as the one above was the first picture of a band ever to be clicked on in a web browser!”

Who knows what financial value “ Les Horribles Cernettes” will have in the future but take a look at the following photos and place a value on them (answers at the bottom of the page):

1. Just a holiday snap or something more valuable? Shot by Dmitry Medvedev in 2009, the Tobolsk Kremlin is the sole stone Kremlin in Siberia.

Tobolsk Kremlin

2: Business as usual: The Chicago Board of Trade, 1997, taken by Andreas Gursky.

Chicago Board of Trade

3: An Arab Summit? No, the Kuwait Stock Exchange, 2008, another by Andreas Gursky.

Kuwait Stock Exchange

The Independent, in a December 2014 article on Australian self-acclaimed fine-art photographer Peter Lik who had just sold a photograph taken in Antelope Canyon, Arizona for more than £4 million (the most expensive photo in history), quoted Martin Parr, the renowned British photographer: “I’ve never even heard of him. It’s pretty astonishing. I’ve looked at his work today and though he’s a very good commercial photographer who can take pictures people like, he has no standing whatever in the fine-art world that I belong to.”

Michael Hoppen, a leading British photography gallerist, says in the same article: “It’s an abomination. I remember when he sold the picture [another by Lik of a man in snow by a river. Ed.] in 2010, my jaw dropped. I thought, who could be persuaded to part with $1m for a piece of tat? You could have done it with an iPhone.” Perhaps Peter Lik did!

But it’s one thing to take photos that could end up being worth millions, it’s quite another what we do with them after they have been taken. With analogues photos we have hard copies, but digitised images are a very different matter.

I’ve commented in the past about the need to adequately protect our digital assets, and that need is getting ever greater. Apple, Google, Twitter and others have announced that they intend to introduce strong encryption measures into their products and services to safeguard against surveillance overreach by government agencies and others. This could mean that photos stored in smartphones, tablets, in cloud storage etc., are lost forever in the event the owner of the images dies.

In their 2013 report regarding individuals’ digital assets, PwC wrote that 25 percent of respondents claimed that nobody would be able to access their digital content after their deaths (because they are not doing enough to protect the digital assets they value).

But even if they are not lost, who is entitled to the images: the person inheriting the device where they are stored or someone else? It is very difficult for traditional estate planning vehicles to handle the issue of unmanaged digital assets, so it’s important for lawyers to provide the right advice to their clients so that the digital property they value is properly addressed and taken care of.

And just how valuable are the photographs above? Each sold for the following:

1: $US1,750,000

2: $US3,298,755

3: $US1,014,354

If you have a valuable digital photograph or photographs you would like us to keep safe, please do get in touch!

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The right to communicate

communicate
The history of the Internet is a debated subject, but what we do know for sure is that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the establishment for national supercomputing centers at several universities and provided interconnectivity in 1986 with the NSFNET project. This was the beginning of the Internet as we know it today.

That said, why, then, is 1993 an even more important year in the history of the Internet?

On April 30, the directors at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, one of Europe’s largest research facilities, made a statement that would change the world. They declared that the WWW technology created by Tim Berners Lee three years earlier would be made freely available to everyone; no fees or licences required. It was a stunning and visionary announcement, very much in line with the decisions of other Internet pioneers.

As the worldwide web grew from those early days, we started to understand the implications of access to, or lack of access to, the net. Even back in mid to late 90s, there were significant forums arguing the case for universal access. Some even went as far as suggesting access to the powerful information and communication features of the Internet should be a basic human right: the right to communicate.

That gave birth to the term Information Superhighway, coined by Vice President Al Gore in a 1994 speech describing the future of computers accessing and communicating over a worldwide network.

Today, that superhighway is alive, thriving and flowing faster than ever.

According to some findings, in 1998 there were 50 million Internet users; eleven years later that figure had climbed to 1 billion worldwide. Today, more than 3 billion people – a little over 40 percent of the world’s population – have an Internet connection.

Furthermore, in a 2014 BBC report quoting IBM, 2.5 exabytes (2.5 billion gigabytes) of data were generated every day in 2012.

Staggering numbers, but who owns these data? As we’ve written in the past, ownership can be a legal minefield because much depends on who hosts the data and the jurisdiction where they are stored. Unfortunately, digital property laws have not kept pace with technological change so, inevitably, much of the data traveling along the Information Highway will be lost.

This can be prevented, however, if people realise the value of their data – be it financial or sentimental – and take a proactive approach to ensure it is well protected.

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The digital vs physical issue – seen from a distance

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During the dotcom boom in the late 90s, the period when digital technologies were beginning to make their mark, it would have been inconceivable that digital property should be included in estate-planning documents. Ten years on and still the issue of digital legacies would seem absurd.

It took the fairly recent media disclosures of the difficulties parents faced with trying to access the social media accounts of their deceased children to highlight the issue of who actually owned this content.

Today, digital estate planning is essential because virtually every part of our lives, personal and professional, is impacted by this digital era. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and other digital gadgets have become reflections of our personalities, our interests and our identities, to the point that, for many, they have become the very fabric of our being.

In the recent 2014 Digital Impact Survey conducted by the Apigee Institute (developer of the intelligent API platform for digital business acceleration) and Stanford University’s Mobile Innovation Group, figures demonstrated that rising numbers of smartphone owners are becoming increasingly dependent on their devices. More than 90 percent reported that having a smartphone has altered how they connect with friends, and many claim they could not maintain a relationship with someone significant or find new friends without their smartphone.

Perhaps that might be seen as a sad reflection of our society today, but the reality is that digital is not going to decline any time soon and that we need to be taking a much more proactive view of the digital assets we’re accumulating.

Estate planning and administration practitioners should be discussing with their clients what they want to happen to their digital estate in the event they become permanently incapacitated or die. We hear a lot about parents’ anguish at not being able to access their children’s social media accounts after their death, but what if these children didn’t want their accounts exposed? What if they wanted them permanently erased when they die? It is vitally important that these wishes are included in any digital estate plan.

Digital property includes all digital assets such as music, films and photos, usernames and passwords, websites, Frequent Flyer Miles; anything that is stored digitally, also digital accounts (online banking, social media, online subscriptions etc) and digital hardware (smartphones, tablets, laptops etc).

Equally, there may also be different types of digital assets and digital devices – those personally owned and those owned by an online service provider and licensed under a terms-of-service-type agreement.

And herein lies a conundrum. Digital property may not necessarily comply with the same legal characteristics as physical property.

Take, for example the viability of the copyright regime; one area that has been considerably challenged by the advent of the Internet and digital technologies. The registration of domain names is a good case in point. The creation of the Internet has generated a new type of property with similar characteristics to trademark rights, but without inherent ties to the trademark law of any individual country. Since Cyberspace has no physical boundaries, defining rights in this new, valuable property presents a number of questions, including those relating to transferability, conditions for ownership (such as payment of registration fees), duration of ownership rights and forfeiture if there is abandonment.

Then there is the case of physical property – media such as books and music for example – that are generally protected by the first sale doctrine. Digital media, on the other hand, is universally governed by an EULA (end user license agreement). The purchase of such assets universally requires creating an account with the content provider, an account also governed by an EULA. As such, the first sale doctrine does not apply to digital media.

Whilst there continues to be considerable discussion internationally on this topic, there has been no formal legislative recognition of digital property in estate planning or estate administration, apart from some states in the US.

That said, there are clear definitions of what constitutes digital property and they are broad enough to cover the field for estate planning and administration purposes. A carefully drafted inventory, along with the rights of access and clear instructions for inheritance, will allow the digital estate to come into the legal possession and/or control of an executor or administrator, in the absence of a law or agreement to the contrary.

Even though the owners of digital property may have a written Will regarding their physical assets, the two property forms should be kept separate. Given the formality attendant to the execution of nonholographic Wills and the often rapidly changing nature and ownership of digital assets, Wills can be an awkward vehicle for digital property.

Furthermore, it remains unclear whether service providers will respect the terms of Wills to transfer ownership of digital assets.

A record with the Will (instead of in the Will) of where the digital inventory (including usernames and passwords) is being held is the best option.

The management of digital property is not difficult and there is a growing number of dedicated professionals who can help and support law firms with this process. The starting point is the realisation that digital property certainly has value and that is should be protected accordingly.

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