Growing Web presence opens new market for asset caretakers

Custodians of online assets will see new market opportunity as more online users in today's information age realize need to plan for their digital afterlife, industry watchers observe.

Most online users today hardly bother to make arrangements about how they want their Web presence to be handled after death, but this will change as more people realize they are increasingly living their lives online. As a result, industry analysts highlight the growing market potential for digital assets services.

Mukul Krishna, global director of digital media at Frost & Sullivan, defined digital assets to encompass digital content or media that has value, monetary or otherwise, to its owner or creator. For instance, on a social networking site, Web property can range from a user's online content such as posts, photos and video files, to his personal online experience and interaction with others on the site.

Other examples of digital assets include e-mail messages and addresses, blogs, virtual credits, Web domains, social networking profiles and billing histories via e-commerce sites or services such as PayPal or eBay.

Krishna said in an e-mail interview: "There is direct or indirect value associated with all that intangible content created [online], thus, it is an asset."

Keith Noonan, research director of public sector at Ovum, noted that issues regarding the rights to use digital assets and how these rights are controlled are also important in the management of digital assets--just as it is with all other types of assets such as properties, shares and investments.

Noonan told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "In life, this is [already] a complex issue. In death, it gets even more complex. In the past, when a loved one passed away, family or friends sort through the things [the deceased] accumulated over a lifetime, [some of which] would likely have dollar value.

"There may also be things of sentimental value. As people put more of their lives on the Internet, much of our life's collection exists only in cyberspace."

Hence, digital assets are quickly becoming an issue that everyone needs to start thinking about, he said.

And yet, according to Chen Yuanyuan, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) School of Computing, there is a general lack of awareness about digital assets. She attributed this void to the common perception about "free-sharing" in the Internet age.

"Many people still believe digital assets created or shared online should be free," Chen said. "If everything is free, then there is no necessity to claim for property or rights."

Frost & Sullivan's Krishna added that most Web users are still "immature" about the Internet and do not realize just how much of their lives are exposed online.

He noted that only when perceptions about digital assets change will users start reassessing how and what they are going to do with all that content, and how it will be managed once they die--whether they want their Web presence permanently deleted or bequeathed to family and friends.

Digital estate planning
According to Krishna, the planning and management of one's digital estate for posterity also presents a market opportunity for businesses to offer digital assets services.

My Webwill is one such company that assumes the role of an executor of a person's online will. The Swedish-based site offers to guard the passwords of their customers' various online accounts, along with instructions--upon the customers' death--on whether to shut down their online identities or hand the passwords over to their family members.

Lisa Granberg, co-founder and CEO of My Webwill, noted that in today's information age of social media, most of a user's assets have become digital--and public. This underscores the importance of protecting and controlling one's online assets, she said in an e-mail, so online users can "decide how you want to be remembered [after death]".

Jeremy Toeman, founder and CEO of Legacy Locker, another site that provides digital insurance, concurred.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Toeman said: "It is important that users think about and create plans for their digital assets. There are possibly hundreds of thousands of Facebook 'ghosts', not to mention abandoned and locked down blogs, Web sites and other content out there [on the Web].

"People are only starting to comprehend the inherent value in digital assets," he said. "As more people make this connection, more will be in need of these services and hence, more companies will address the market."

But while there is some literature today about digital assets, Ovum's Noonan noted that there is very little discussion about digital liabilities. "What about the information or pictures that we would like to see gone forever? What rights do we have to request that site owners remove our information from their site?" he said.

Ownership of digital property rights
A 2006 report by ZDNet Asia's sister site, CNET News, highlighted that following a person's death in the digital age, the family mourning the loss faced a "vexing" problem when the virtual trail left behind by the loved one could not be traced because he took his passwords to the grave. Because of U.S. privacy laws, the deceased's e-mail provider, Yahoo, could not give out information to the deceased's daughter.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said in the article that the issue was less about privacy rights than property rights.

Chen from NUS said the boundary defining property rights for digital assets is blurring in today's information era where social media and Web 2.0 technologies provide opportunities to create user-generated content (UGC), which then become part of a person's digital assets.

She added that Web users currently have more mechanisms to use or access digital assets and share them at minimal cost, for instance, through peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing and software piracy. This makes the challenge of protecting one's virtual estate all the more difficult, Chen said.

My Webwill's Granberg, however, noted "a radical change" since 2009 in the way people treat their digital assets and discuss the assets they want to be made public or private. "People are now demanding better control over their digital assets," she said.

She cited the example of social networking giant, Facebook, which now allows memorialized profiles for members when they pass away.

She added that since 2009, there as been a boom in demand for digital assets services.

Asked if such services would find their way to Asia, she replied that with the Internet, geographical borders were irrelevant.

Granberg noted that Web users in Asia-Pacific adapt very quickly to online trends and added that she expects the region to see a huge interest in digital assets services.

Legacy Locker's Toeman shared similar views, noting that online users in Asia would increasingly look for digital assets services just like their counterparts in the West have. Furthermore, he said the prevalence of social games in several Asian markets would be also be a driving factor as users will want to protect their virtual creations.