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In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal (which was made public in 1990) for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. The immediate purpose of the idea was to make it easier for nuclear physics researcher to share information. However, it was the start of a new era - his concept of creating a "common information space in which we communicate by sharing information" has changed our world forever.
Just over 20 years later our lives are dominated by the Web – we research online, communicate online, shop and bank online and, most recently, socialise online via Facebook and Twitter. IPhones and iPads have enabled us to access and take the Web wherever we go. The emergence of the ‘cloud’ – i.e. storage of data on a remote rather than local server – means that our photos, music, personal information etc are all part of a new digital property. We live our lives by the click of a button and often fail to consider the future … few think about what will happen to their internet life when they die or if they were to lose mental capacity.
Neither Facebook nor Twitter hand over login information to Executors. On receipt of a death certificate, Twitter will delete an account and Facebook will, if requested by the family, either ‘memorialise’ the account or delete it.
With other sites it depends on their terms and conditions – have you checked them out? If the issue is not considered the information could be misused. Also, online assets such as Paypal accounts, Wine Bank accounts or online investments or bank accounts could easily be missed if there is no paper record and no one else has any knowledge of them.
There is also an increasing issue about the ownership of virtual assets such as items purchased on iTunes and eBooks. Hollywood actor, Bruce Willis, is reportedly preparing to take Apple to court over the rights to his iTunes collection. His wishes are to pass his collection (which is very valuable) to his children by his Will but according to Apple's terms and conditions, users actually only 'borrow' the music they buy on iTunes - meaning that they no longer own them upon their death. There is a similar debate regarding eBooks.
Legislation is currently being drawn up both in the EU and the US to seek to address the issues. However these are complex and, as has rightly been commented, ‘legislation will always be the tortoise to technology’s hare’.
To overcome some of these issues, an increasing number of people include login details and passwords in their Wills - however, unless securely stored, this could create serious security issues. It also makes it cumbersome to keep records up-to-date. Further a Will becomes ‘public’ when Probate is granted so by including the data in the Will the same will eventually become accessible by anyone. Furthermore, a Will only comes into effect on death so including the information in a Will does not address the issue of loss of mental capacity. Alternatively, the Will and a Power of Attorney could refer to a sealed envelope securely stored with the documents to contain the relevant information. This may be more secure, will keep the information private, allow for details to be updated in a simpler and quicker way and be accessible both on death and loss of capacity.