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Digital Devices (Access for Next of Kin)

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to grant a right of access to the digital devices of a dead or incapacitated person to their next of kin; and for connected purposes.

At the outset, I thank the Government for giving me one of their valued spaces to introduce this private Member’s Bill. They did not do that lightly. Indeed, there is an indication—I will put it no more strongly than that—of a fair wind from the Government and that the Bill could make its way to the statue book, given that they are considering whether the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill may be a mechanism to consider the matter.

I thank hon. Members from across the House for the considerable support I have received, as can be seen from the names of the sponsors of the Bill, and the welcome endorsement I have received from the other place, where they are considering similar matters. I particularly welcome the support from Baroness Beeban Kidron, who took time to draw my attention to and discuss with me the contents of the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, and the importance of how this measure will help reset the relationship between the service provider and end user. I note a debate in the other place in the Baroness’s name on Thursday, and hope that that too will give added momentum to this important matter, which both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are considering.

My Bill will grant the next of kin the right to access the smart phone and other digital devices of a person on their death or incapacity. There is no legislative definition of a “digital asset” in the United Kingdom. There is no legislation governing a personal representative or fiduciary’s access to digital assets. My Bill would create a law where the default position would be that the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated person would automatically gain access to the contents of the digital platforms held in the deceased person’s name on their digital devices.

My Bill would clarify the position in the UK, and protect the assets and legacy of an individual’s digital estate. It would grant immediate access to the next of kin to a deceased or incapacitated person’s digital assets without their having to take costly or uncertain legal action against digital platforms. The Bill will codify the contents of digital assets as a person’s possession.

Every day, without realising it, we are creating an even larger digital footprint as we go through our lives, both in a personal way and in our financial lives online. What happens to that information when someone unexpectedly or tragically dies? Leaving a treasured possession such as a photo album or a collection of memorabilia and precious memories used to be quite easy, but in the ever-increasing digital world and digital age, that now often intangible property may be buried beneath layers of cyber-security. It can be hard to locate and even harder to administer as the legal landscape has failed, on many occasions, to keep pace with the development of technology and tech companies have become increasingly powerful.

Today an estimated £25 billion of our assets in the UK are held online in password-protected cloud storage solutions such as iTunes and social media accounts. For many people, digital assets fall into the important category of predominantly sentimental value—for example, memories, photos and videos stored on a laptop, notebook, smartphone or on social media accounts accessed via those devices. But this is not just about sentimental records. Music is purchased online, physical record, CD and book collections are replaced, and in some instances significant revenues are generated online. In the gaming world, a player’s virtual character can be traded for considerable revenue. YouTube channels, cryptocurrency and frequent flyer points can each be translated into monetary value—but only if next of kin has access. Most people are under the impression that they own their online content. They do not. Many forget to make provision for access to their content material in their will, or to share their passwords and access codes with their loved ones. Of course, many do not have a will, and young people, especially, fall into that category. Much precious material, sentimental and otherwise, can therefore be lost forever.

The United States of America has attempted to legislate in the area, and the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act has passed in some states, but in the UK there is no legislation on rights of access to a person’s digital device or account. Even a grant of probate may not be sufficient to enable the executors to obtain legal title to a deceased person’s digital content. In fact, in the UK we are at the mercy of the mechanisms laid down by the giant tech companies in trying to gain some limited access: Facebook, Google, Apple, iTunes, Instagram, Microsoft, YouTube and PayPal, to name a few. Each has different and limited practices and policies for access on death or incapacity to a person’s digital content or physical device. We need to unlock that labyrinth for the public.

The Bill will go some way towards unlocking and finding a way through that labyrinth. It will allow next of kin the automatic right to access to a person’s digital device and place a responsibility on the tech companies to unlock devices for those next of kin who do not have the access codes for devices left by the deceased. It will avoid unnecessary legal action by the next of kin. It will remove forever the unnecessary wall and unlock, for many, happy memories and access to what they thought was lost archive material about their loved one. Precious photos, videos, memories, messages, diaries and other material will be accessible to next of kin at the most difficult time in many families’ lives. There is a need for the Government to bring our laws into the digital new century and ensure that next of kin are not blocked by tech companies from having access to their loved one’s material.

During my discussions with Baroness Kidron, she related to me the tragic story of 14-year-old Molly Russell. It chimed with me given other constituency cases that I have come across and dealt with. The Bill will ensure that digital data is available to investigators, and, above all, that other bereaved parents do not have to experience what families have gone through in accessing their children’s social media and other accounts.

Question put and agreed to.


That Ian Paisley, Jeremy Wright, Damian Collins, Sir Robert Goodwill, Kevin Brennan, John Spellar, Matt Western, Nick Smith, Jim Shannon, Carla Lockhart and Sammy Wilson present the Bill.

Ian Paisley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 February, and to be printed (Bill 229).