Whose digital life is it anyway?


There was a time, long ago, when people played music. Then things changed. We invented records and tapes and compact discs. Then people owned music. Now we have MP3 files, iTunes, and clouds. We listen more than ever, but we don't own as much. We just license. Do you have a problem with that?

If you own something, you have the right to use it and dispose of it as you please. If I own a CD, I can play it on one device or a hundred devices. I can play it on your device or mine. I can lend it or sell it as I have a mind to do, even give it away. And when I die, my children can go through my collection and fight over who's going to get Dad's Scottish folk music.

But if you buy your music from iTunes and keep it on one of the five devices you are allowed to register with Apple at the same time, you are paying merely to license the music. It's not yours. You're fooling yourself if you think it is.

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This is not just the oddball concern of grumpy, possessive people like me. Now that people with highly digitized lives are dying, it's becoming an inheritance issue. The Economist reports that people have a lot on money tied up in digital assets, which "may include software, websites, downloaded content, online gaming identities, social-media accounts and even emails," and that means courts and legislatures are starting to clarify the public interest.

But there is also a personal value to the digital treasures we leave behind. Survivors used to go through their loved one's books, photos, perhaps even letters, and preserve the family archive and estate for the following generations. But much of these things are now stored in forms that are protected with passwords the deceased took with him to the grave, which are perhaps not even transferable. Photographs were once in a set of albums or at least a shoebox. They are now on websites and in "clouds." The Economist tells us, "All email and data on [Apple's] iCloud service is[sic] deleted on the death of the owner." But if you can't leave your stuff to others when you die, you are not the owner. Remember that everything you post on Facebook becomes the property of Facebook-every photo, every thought. By contrast, Google seems to be serious about "data liberation."

A simple step in the direction of owner control (i.e., real ownership of digital assets that we store on websites) would be survivor control information on one's settings page. I could indicate my wife with her email address, and she could be emailed for confirmation and a password. One could list four contingency heirs in case of an especially terrible tragedy.

Before you opt for the convenience of leaning on clouds and websites for their storage and chronicling capacities, ask yourself, "Whose life is it anyway?"

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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