Most of us live two lives - the physical one and a virtual mirror of it online. When we die, our physical existence comes to an end even as our virtual presence lingers on.
So, what happens to all this content we have created, our online accounts and virtual transactions? What happens to all that we have stored in the cloud and, unknowingly, in servers across the globe?
While most major corporates have privacy policies that explain how, and if, virtual accounts and content can be bequeathed to legal heirs (most digital data will belong to the company), some individuals have already started making 'digital wills'.
Supreme Court lawyer and Cyberlaw Asia President Pavan Duggal, who has helped people make digital wills, says, "Normally, people who have digital assets or confidential digital information are those who go for this option."
But the numbers are few as there is little awareness about it as well as a lack of adequate laws. "We do not have in place any law in India pertaining to digital legacies," explains Duggal. "There is the Information Technology Act, 2000, which is applicable to all digital information, data and assets. However, its applicability is excluded to testamentary, disposition and wills."
Online banking is another area where data is left behind.
The banks we contacted did not have a specific answer on what happens to online accounts once the account holder is no more. The I-T Department, however, is one up on them. It has put up a directive clarifying that the legal heir has to file the return in case an assessee expires.
"The legal heir (LH) is required to make a request by sending a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org mentioning the name, PAN, date of birth of deceased as well as that of the LH along with scanned attachment of the death certificate of the deceased. On receipt, the LH can file the return of deceased using LH's DSC," says the website.
But what about all the online content we create, our blog posts, pictures we post on Facebook and such stuff?
"Just like any other literary content, after the author dies, the economic rights in the work concerned pass on to the legal heirs for another 60 years following the calendar year after the author's death," says Latha R Nair, Partner at K&S Partners, Intellectual Property Attorneys.
The legal heirs of the content creator have the right to the work and royalties, if any.
BLOGS, PHOTOS, FINANCIAL ACCOUNTS
Like all creative products, literary works, research notes, photographs, etc, that are created online will pass on to the legal heir of the deceased.
There is, however, no specific law in India on this, but they are considered intellectual property and treated likewise. Similarly, legal heirs have the right to access bank accounts and online records with, say, the Income Tax Department. Companies will have first right to stuff lying in official email services and servers.
Email accounts of Yahoo are automatically deleted if it stays dormat for over four months. Yahoo will also close the account if a copy of the death certificate is emailed to email@example.com.
Google says that in rare cases it "may be able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorised representative of the deceased user".
But the post on Google Support adds that "any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user's email will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain email content is a lengthy process.
Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the Gmail account content, and sending a request or filing the required documentation does not guarantee that we will be able to assist you." The same applies to all Google services.
Facebook gives friends and relatives the option of memorialising a deceased person's account to protect privacy.
"Memorialising an account sets the account privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile or locate it in search. Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance," says the Facebook blog.
It also prevents anyone from logging into the account. Facebook does not divulge login details of the account, but "verified immediate family members" can also request the removal of an account.
... AND WHAT OTHERS DO
Microsoft-MSN: Account data on email or any other MSN service is transferred to legal heir after death if verified and preserved till that time.
LinkedIn Twitter: Account shut if 'death verification form' or request submitted.
Flickr: Account is terminated and photographs and content permanently deleted if copy of death certificate is provided.
Orkut: Profile removed if death certificate is uploaded and an online form completed.
PayPal: If death is reported, account will be closed and a cheque made out to the account holder is issued to the legal heir.
eBay: All data of the user on the buy-sell website is deleted if death certificate is faxed to company.