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Deciding your online death

Catalan government approves a bill to allow designation of an heir to digital legacy without having to draw up a will

What happens to our email accounts when we die? And what about the books and music that we purchased, and the photographs that we uploaded to social networks? With the approval of a bill for digital wills, yesterday the Catalan government took the first step to legislate over what is still largely uncharted ground, a person’s digital legacy, so that people may decide on the management of their digital assets when they pass away.

The new law will establish the figure of digital heir to be included explicitly in the last will and testament. This person will be responsible for administering internet accounts and the contents left behind by the deceased in accordance with their wishes. But what happens when the person-- especially if they are young-- has not left a will prior to death?

The law will include the creation of a register of digital wills, a "more agile, simple” system, that will allow for the telematic designation of a digital heir, using an electronic signature and without having to visit a notary, according to Catalonia’s Justice Minister Carles Mundó. The register of digital wills will work very like the register of advance directives, explained lawyer Eloi Font, Managing Partner with law firm Font Advocats, an expert in digital rights. The register is aimed especially at young people who have not created a will and testament but who have, increasingly, more digital assets.

"Until now, there has not been an adequate answer to the event of dying physically, but not being able to do so digitally", lamented Minister Mundó yesterday in a press briefing following Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. Indeed, this contribution is what the lawyers were celebrating yesterday with this first legislative step: "It will provide an answer to a highly uncertain situation which people are faced with today -- both the families and the platforms and social networks-- when someone dies", argued Miquel Peguera, Professor of Internet Law at the UOC.

Avoiding painful situations

When someone dies, their accounts remain active and this can cause "shocking" and  "difficult" situations for family members and the deceased's social circles, explained Peguera. For example, they can continue receiving notifications on days such as the deceased's birthday or even proposals to make contact with that person in a social network where their profile remains active. "These are delicate situations which affect the family, and there is not enough awareness of how to act on it", said the UOC professor yesterday, satisfied that Catalonia is proposing a law with these characteristics.

Once processed and approved in parliament, the bill will be a pioneer in its area, not only in Spain but also in the EU. "In Europe, there has only been a precedent in France", said lawyer Eloi Font. The companies dedicated to the protection of contents on the web, to erasing digital fingerprints, and managing these legacies have also been waiting for this new legislative step for some time, explained Josep Coll, founder of Red Points, yesterday.

Currently, the management of this legacy on the internet is done in a variety of ways and they often depend on the conditions and terms under which the digital platform or social network operates, explained Coll. Thus, there are some that authorize the elimination of all the deceased's information, while others allow for the transformation of the site into a kind of memorial for this person, where people can leave messages, for example.

According to Font, one of the positive aspects to this bill that the government unveiled yesterday is that the draft was submitted to an audience of interested platforms such as the Catalan College of Notaries, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, according to the final legal report on the bill.

The changes that the future regulation will bring, explained Mundó, will be incorporated into the Catalan Civil Code. From then, there will be new concepts such as digital assets, digital heir, and digital wills, which will not only serve to ensure that a person can resolve the management of their legacy on the internet, but will also empower family members "to comply with the digital wishes of another person", said the Minister.

Parental protection of minors

The changes to the Civil Code will also establish the rights of parents to protect their children on the web, in addition to the obligation to watch over their content on the internet. In cases of a discrepancy of opinion with the children, or when it is suspected, for example, that there is a situation of abuse or harassment, the law will allow the parents to go to court and ask a judge to facilitate the process so that the digital service providers remove images and comments, and even block access to a minor's accounts.

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