Social media users in the UAE can now legally bequeath their online accounts to friends or family in the event of their death, officials announced on Sunday.
The new measure ensures anyone wishing to protect their digital footprint can do so by making it clear in their will who they want to have access.
Until now, the issue of who and how an account is used following a bereavement has been marred by confusion.
Some platforms dictate that family members must provide an official death certificate before access is granted, while others allow partial access immediately.
On Sunday, Sean Hird, director of the Dubai International Financial Centre Wills Service, said he believed formally clarifying what happens to social media accounts in the event of a death represented an important step forward.
He claimed DIFC was right to take action on the issue, and that he hoped users would now register new wills or adapt existing ones to better protect their online legacy.
"It makes absolute sense to leave clear instructions in your will about who should and shouldn’t have access and ownership to your accounts when you pass away,” he said.
"It's a much better option than leaving a will silent on such matters, and hoping that the law will evolve in a way consistent with your wishes."
Under the new ruling, individuals registering a will with DIFC Courts will be able to leave detailed instructions on how their accounts should be handled and by whom.
The move follows a landmark court ruling in Germany last week which stated that social media accounts could be inherited by a beneficiary.
In the German case, the Federal Court found that heirs do have the right to access the Facebook accounts of deceased relatives under inheritance law on the grounds that a social media account is a private asset in much the same way as private diaries or letters.
It found that the parents of a 15-year-old girl who died in 2012 after being hit by a train should be granted access to her Facebook page to determine if her death was due to suicide.
Prior to the ruling, Facebook had refused access to the account citing privacy concerns about the girl's contacts. Under its current policy, the company allows relatives of the dead partial access to the account, granting them only a limited authority to change the page into an online memorial or to delete the account altogether.
On Sunday, Mr Hird suggested that those interested in bequeathing their online legacy should consider certain practical steps.
He said handing over passwords of accounts to a named beneficiary was a good idea and that any specific instructions should be made through "express provisions in a registered will".
"When we asked UAE residents in a survey last year if they would want to protect and pass on their digital footprint and social media legacy, an overwhelming majority 89 per cent said they would want their social media accounts to be deactivated," he said. "The surest way of achieving this is through express provisions in a registered will.”
For some years now lawyers have wrestled with the issue of legality of online assets and personal information on social media sites.
In 2008 Facebook introduced a process to ensure a deceased user no longer appeared in birthday reminders of friends, and three years ago it also added settings to give users the option of having their account permanently deleted following their death or nominating a relative or friend to turn the page into a memorial.
In cases where family members are not so social media savvy, however, or where a death is not immediately recognised by an online platform, the deceased person’s digital identity often continues to exist.
UAE resident Kevin Sebastian described an occasion when he had lost a close friend whose family were unaware of how to turn the deceased's Facebook account into a memorial page.
He said friends had been unsettled after receiving numerous automatic notifications from the account after logging on to play group video games.
“It’s a shock when you get a message saying that a person you know has passed away is waiting to play with you," he said.
"Death is an uncomfortable subject to talk about — it’s a hard conversation to have with family.
"But it’s important that people are aware of these new changes. People worry so much about their social media presence they should definitely consider what happens when they are no longer in control of it."
DIFC's decision to make inheriting social media accounts legally binding also highlights an important issue of privacy. "It's natural that the family will want access, it would help them with closure," Mr Sebastian, a digital media consultant, added.
"But what if a person is estranged from their family and would not want them to have access to some information. Making it legal is a step in the right direction."
UAE residents drawing up a will can leave clear instructions so their wishes on virtual accounts are respected in much the same way that a will provides details about physical assets such as bank accounts and real estate.
Since 2017, some 4,000 people registered wills with DIFC Courts. Among the most common nationalities to do so were Indians, Britons, French, Italians and the Swiss.
Both UAE residents and non-residents can use the facility, where they can also specify which home nation's law they wish to govern how their personal assets are distributed after their death.
If a will is not registered, assets in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah are divided among relatives according to a pre-determined formula following strict Islamic Sharia principles.
In a quick breakdown of current social media requirements in respect of bereavement, the DIFC said that Facebook did allow a person to appoint a legacy contact to post a final message or memorial information on a timeline.
But it added that Twitter would not allow partial access, opting instead to work with a family or a loved one to access an account once a death certificate had been issued.
Instagram, meanwhile, allows for the ‘memorialising’ of an account after a person’s death, but the account cannot be altered.
Mr Hird added: “We advise all those registering a will at the DIFC Courts to think carefully about what they would want to happen to their social media accounts and make clear provision for this in their will."