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
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.