In the past 20 years, technology has caused a rapid change in social behaviours; the Internet and digital media are now, more than ever, an inextricable part of our personal, social, and professional lives. It has proven hugely beneficial, but, as ever, there are two sides to one coin. For example, piracy – the illegal download of digital media – has been a growing concern for organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America, so the government has had to step in and pass laws meant to deal with our online activities.
That said, piracy is not the only issue facing governments that seek to introduce legislation on digital media. For example, what happens to e-book and iTunes downloads when the original owner passes away? It appears that in most cases, survivors would be blocked from directly accessing digital material owned by their deceased loved ones. Twitter, for example, can back up tweets for the deceased’s relatives, but then deletes the account entirely; meanwhile, Facebook allows relatives to download information from the account, provided the deceased has left instructions to that effect in his or her will, or can alternately turn the profile into a memorial page. On the other hand, Yahoo! – which owns Flickr – gives no rights to executors and heirs. They delete the account and its information entirely, without first backing it up.
It’s a tricky situation all around. When you die, there is nothing to prevent your relatives from claiming your paperback copy of War and Peace. But when it comes to digital assets, every corporation has its own terms of service, and survivors must navigate the requirements for each before they can get access to the deceased’s accounts.
And there is, of course, the question of privacy. Should relatives be allowed to access private information that the deceased may not have wanted them to see? Some people now include instructions regarding their digital property in their wills, but there currently exists no legislation to enforce them. Is this something that should be made into law?
Moreover, should digital rights be dictated by the companies that provide the services, or should the responsibility to make decisions of that nature fall to the government? What role does consumer protection play in all of this? After all, we are still buying products from these companies – it’s just the format in which the product is delivered that has changed. Is it fair for companies like Apple and Kindle to revoke ownership of a product that has already been paid for?
When it comes to the matter of digital rights, we are sailing through uncharted waters. For decades, few questioned the laws that covered consumer protection and inheritance. But new technology is complex, and so there are many factors – financial, social, and ethical – that we must consider before we attempt to legislate it.
This is why it is important that policymakers – and those advising them – have a thorough understanding of the issues that come along with emerging technologies. People need to know what they are entitled to under the umbrella of the law, yet a lack of knowledge on the part of lawmakers means that, in many cases, the legal implications of digital ownership remain unclear.