CHINA Digital Age: a tale of virtual possessions


Digital Age: a tale of virtual possessions

Global Times

02:03, April 22, 2018

(Photo: IC)

Lily Tong has repeatedly thought about what will happen to her "virtual son" - a free-roaming frog she raised in a fashionable game app - after she dies. 

With such concerns lingering in her mind, the 25-year-old finally decided to arrange a will to ensure her digital frog will be taken care of.

"My presence reaches so far into the cyberspace, so it is not surprising but imperative to include those irreplaceable footprints online during my estate-planning process. Yes, that sounds a bit early, but one's electronic possessions should surely get more attention from people in the digital age," Lily told the Global Times.

Influenced by Lily, her friend, Zhouzhou, 28 and unmarried, said half-jokingly that she would like her younger sister to take over her role as "wife of Baiqi," her virtual boyfriend on a popular dating app.

When it comes to the digital era, young Chinese inevitably start to plan ahead for the future of their digital assets. The issue of digital inheritance has become a newborn industry targeting post-1990s generation adults.

During the recent Qingming Festival, a video of "post-1995s committing their wills to the Notary Public Office of Wuxi [East China's Jiangsu Province]" went viral online. The youngest consignor in the video was only 21 years old.

Talking about the younger generations considering their intangible asset into their wills, the audience started a great fuss over their digital assets and online presence - the "most valuable assets in 21st century."

"Who wants to inherit my emoji?" "Who's the best to leave my Alipay balance to?" "Wish someone can feed my chicken in the MiniWorld [a 3D free-to-play sandbox game], and don't forget to report to me on every memorial day through scanning the QR code below my tombstone" are among the jokes being made. 

Gao Yang, director of the Notary Public Office of Wuxi, told the Global Times that more people now see digital assets as a part of their "inheritance," an intangible but valuable aspect of estates to include in their wills, though "the legislation has not caught up with the pace of demand."

He feels surprised to see a prominent tendency among youngsters as early as their 20s making a will.

Concerning the fate of her online presences, once she is no longer able to manage them, Lily Tong is planning to store passwords of her social media account, including family photos and diaries, in her will that her best friend could access after Lily dies.

"My close friends around are all agreeing it would be a great way to visit my memory," said Lily, an airline stewardess, adding that due to her occupation, she never knows what will come first, "tomorrow or an accident?"

Other groups who have little tangible wealth to leave behind, such as students, also confirm the value of their online data and information over either its sentimental or monetary value. 

"Asking me to write a will, I would say the first thing that comes to mind would be photos in my QQ account or my WeChat moments. Then there are my essays, dissertations, research plans and other intellectual heritage stored in the iCloud," a 19-year-old student in Beihang University told the Global Times.

As digital content becomes increasingly ingrained in our daily life, the digital inheritance might be a potential in the near future for younger generations. But the relevant policy in China seems to lag behind some Western countries that have developed a relatively mature system to deal with such account management upon one's death. 

Digital property management

For a long time, China's relevant industries have not established referable legal terms due to the complexity of inheritance of virtual products.

Keeping up with the development and challenges of the modern information age, provisions reflected in the General Provisions of the Civil Law officially implemented in October 2017 contain a rule to protect digital assets and private information. 

Fang Zhengyu, a lawyer from Shanghai Niu Mai Law Firm, however, explained to the Global Times that the law only signifies a future space for such requests. But trivial issues regarding the measurement of its economic value and corresponding notarial service have a long way to develop further. 

In 2011, a resident in Liaoning Province was killed in a car accident. His wife wanted to get photos and letters from her husband's QQ mailbox but had no password. When she contacted Tencent to gain access, she was denied because Tencent spells out in its terms of service that "the user has only the right to use the QQ account but not as a property for inheritance or transform."

Tencent rules that QQ is owned by the company, and it claims the right to close an account if it was not used for more than 3 months.

Hidden in the multiple pages of user agreements are rigid terms that put the bereaved at a disadvantage.

Only physical money left in an account is allowed to be transferred over after death. Alibaba's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay, China's two dominant mobile payment platforms, claimed publicly that they allow family to take over accounts even without pre-authorization, but only if they can prove their identity and provide proof of death.

Similarly, Alibaba's Taobao has announced "divorce transfer" and "inheritance transfer" rules for shop owners to solve the segmentation or inheritance problems caused by divorce or death.

New industry

Filling the gap in this market, third-party services are helping transfer such digital assets and memories.

Calling himself an "online mortician," Lin Dongping opened a microblog on Sina Weibo in 2011 for the bereaved by collecting and sorting out social records of the deceased, and also wrote obituaries following their social media footprints for each deceased.

Posting more than 1,802 posts over the past eight years, the account has now gathered more than 320,000 followers. Visiting the accounts of the deceased, gathering footprints across their timeline, absorbing moments into the story of obituaries, and finally publishing the post to the public, Lin believes one's social network traces could come to best relieve family and friends, despite the risk of privacy intrusion.

In October 2016, a project called "Telling the Family" became the first service in China providing solutions to protect inheritance of digital assets, through storing account password clues. It targets digital users with concerns about unexpected death.

Telling the Family works to continually track the client's registered social media accounts through a number of different methods. Once they detect that the account has been left unattended for a long time, they will take initiative to check with its emergency contacts, and then turn over clues or hints to fiduciaries for taking over the accounts if death has been confirmed.

The project leader, Xu Xiangpeng, revealed to The Beijing News newspaper that the service has attracted relevant government institutions looking for cooperation. 

Xu suggests that the management of virtual property is a demand point for the public, but remains a vague concept calling for entrepreneurs and policy-makers to push forward.

"It is surely important to protect the digital heritage, which not only guarantees the integrity of digital property, but also provides a green way for the living to remember the deceased," said Liu Junhai, a professor of law at Renmin University of China. "Moreover, it will contribute to a crackdown on crimes, such as post-mortem identity theft or fraud."

Zhao Zhanling, a research fellow at the China E-commerce Research Center, said that the latest provision clearly reserved the legislative space for digital property, while its legislative status and stipulatory treatment about inheritance wait to be specifically defined. 

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