An inheritance case in eastern China has raised questions for a society living in the internet age — namely, how should one’s digital legacy be handled after their death?
After his father was killed in an accident in March, Jiangsu resident Liu Weijun had to go through a notary procedure to inherit his father’s two phone numbers, Party-affiliated newspaper Beijing Youth Daily reported Thursday.
Since his father was a businessman, Liu thought that gaining access to his contacts would be important for maintaining the family’s business relationships. But getting the phone numbers transferred to Liu required more effort than he anticipated, because his father could not be present for the process — as telecom companies generally require for such transfers.
So Liu had to go to the local notary office for a document certifying that the phone numbers were indeed his father’s “virtual property,” and that he, in turn, was eligible to inherit them.
Though Liu’s problem was eventually solved, his experience prompted many Chinese netizens to consider the issue of digital inheritance. The country is rapidly trending toward a cashless society, and online consumption makes the internet more of a daily presence in the lives of the country’s nearly 800 million netizens.
“Now your son can pay your debts for you on Huabei,” one netizen commented about the case, referring to Alibaba’s online lending service. Other netizens, meanwhile, wondered whether their children might be able to inherit their accounts on popular video games like “League of Legends” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.”
Despite netizens’ largely lighthearted reactions, regulations and legal procedures pertaining to digital inheritance are not yet in place, given that the concept of digital legacies is still relatively new. Unlike Western social networks such as Twitter and Facebook — both of which introduced legacy contact services years ago — most Chinese internet companies have not yet decided how to handle the memorialization of users accounts.
Tencent-owned messaging app QQ allows the relatives of a deceased user to withdraw any money left on their account, but neither QQ nor Weibo, China’s largest microblog platform, has rules about whether accounts can be inherited as personal legacies.
In the eyes of legal experts, the absence of a comprehensive law on digital property like social media accounts and virtual currency lies at the heart of the matter. It was not until last year that virtual assets were incorporated into China’s civil law — but this did not include a clear definition of what specifically constitutes a “virtual asset.” And to this day, there are no provisions relating to the inheritance of digital assets in the country’s law of succession.
“In their user agreements, internet service providers generally only allow people to have the right to access the accounts [of deceased family members] rather than the right to own such accounts,” civil law researcher He Lijun wrote in a paper published last year. “As a result, most users’ rights to their virtual assets are not well protected, let alone able to be inherited.”
Chen Kai, a Beijing-based lawyer who founded the China Will Registration Center, told Sixth Tone that the law of succession — which has remained unchanged since it was enacted in 1985 — needs to be updated to keep pace with the country’s rapidly evolving society.
“Back then, there was no such thing as a virtual asset,” Chen said, “but society has undergone huge changes since.” Chen suggested that virtual inheritance disputes should not be decided by stipulations in internet companies’ user agreements, but should instead be resolved through legal avenues.
Editor: David Paulk.