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Digital Inheritance
Cover Stories Series 2011> Digital Inheritance
UPDATED: November 28, 2011 NO. 48 DECEMBER 1, 2011
Digital Is Forever

Since the dawn of the Internet age, the world's Web users have been acquiring an ever-expanding pile of online assets. These online assets, which include e-mail accounts, blogs, videogame avatars and profiles in social media, are stored in hardware devices and servers around the world.

However, as these virtual assets become an integral part of our daily lives, they are beginning to be subject to the same concerns and regulations as traditional physical assets, yet one key concern regarding online assets remains unanswered: How will these virtual assets be passed down after their original owners die, and who is eligible to inherit them?

Like many countries with advanced Internet infrastructure, China is seeing more and more disputes involving the inheritance of virtual assets. Given its population of about 500 million Internet users, many netizens now feel that this is a pressing issue that requires legal guidelines.

In 2003, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted a draft charter, calling for the preservation of what it calls "digital heritage" to ensure continued accessibility to the data of deceased individuals.

Legally, digital heritage is a spin-off of virtual assets. But legal recognition of the latter is still a controversial issue around the world. In China, the law, at present, doesn't even offer a definition on virtual assets. This situation is largely the result of national economic security concerns. For example, if the monetary value of online game assets and currency were legally recognized, the operators would in fact be receiving the power to issue currency, which will potentially have a huge impact on money supplies and may even trigger severe inflation in countries with large populations of gamers. As a result, the full legal recognition of virtual assets is unlikely to materialize in the near future.

But digital heritage is not simply about the monetary value of online content. In many cases, an individual's online legacy is simply a repository of emotional and cultural value. In the current digital age, many people communicate with their loved ones and store records of their personal lives on the Internet. These records are often of great sentimental importance to family members. Crucially, as many records of personal lives also mirror historical changes, it could also be argued that these records form part of the common heritage of mankind.

While many people believe that information stored online can be saved indefinitely, digital heritage is in fact highly vulnerable to loss due to the rapid obsolescence of the technologies needed for access, a lack of supportive legislation, and international uncertainty about resources, responsibilities and preservation methods.

At present, it may be impossible to find a comprehensive solution to the problems regarding the inheritance of digital heritage. But efforts are being made to find a viable framework. Until a solution, which strikes a fair balance between the legitimate rights of creators and other rights holders and the public interest, is found, the public should continue to take a keen interest in the matter of digital heritage.

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