STEP campaign urges public to act to protect digital memories

This article was originally published in June 2022, and has been updated to reflect STEP's win at the Memcom Awards 2023. The judges described it as "an engaging and timely campaign with clear objectives and a clarion call to action.”
29 September 2023 by
Memcom, Rachel Appleton

The Society of Trust and Estate Planners (STEP) has launched a campaign urging the public to take simple measures to ensure their digital memories, such as photos and videos, can be passed on to their loved ones in the event of incapacity or death.

Whereas previous generations handed down physical photo albums preserving the image of family members and recording special occasions such as weddings, many of us now keep treasured photos and videos in folders languishing in the Cloud, or on our social media accounts. If we don’t actively choose to pass these assets on to loved ones, they could simply disappear, warns Emily Deane, Head of Government Affairs at STEP.

A study conducted by STEP in Autumn 2021 found that estate planners around the world were dealing with enquiries regarding digital assets on a daily basis. Social media and email accounts were of particular concern to clients.

A quarter of respondents had dealt with clients who had been unable to access their loved one’s digital assets, causing considerable distress and frustration for the bereaved.

Though a current lack of legislation and policy on the matter is an obstacle for practitioners seeking to help clients make provision for their digital assets, demand for advice on the topic is expected to increase significantly as more and more of everyone’s activity is conducted online.


The public value their digital assets 
In a YouGov survey of 2,000 UK adults (conducted in May 2022), 64% said that what happens to sentimental digital possessions such as photos, videos and social media accounts after they have gone is either ‘fairly important’ or ‘very important’ to them. In contrast, just 33% of respondents said that what happened to their financial digital assets (such as cryptocurrency) was fairly or very important to them.

Despite the apparent significance respondents place on them, the survey revealed that most people have not thought about what will happen to their digital assets when they die or if they are incapacitated. Fifty-seven percent have not made any plans to pass on their digital assets, and just 3% have used the digital legacy tools provided by Facebook, Google, and Apple, among others.

The campaign aims to increase public awareness of these legacy tools, which allow users to nominate someone to have access to the account if the holder dies or becomes incapacitated. Making this provision takes just a few minutes, and STEP provides easy to follow instructions on the campaign websiteThe site also offers information on what happens to accounts on platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram which are yet to offer users a legacy function.

Lobbying governments and service providers 
As part of the campaign, STEP is calling on governments around the world to bring in legislation that allows a nominated person to access an account in the appropriate circumstances. In addition to the sentimental value of photos and videos, the executor or next of kin might need to control published content to protect the privacy of the deceased, or access the account to obtain passwords and login details to safeguard the deceased’s financial property, explains Emily.

STEP is also calling for all providers, such as social media platforms, email and cloud storage services, to offer, and encourage account holders to make use of, a comprehensive legacy tool to enable individuals to make an informed choice about what happens to their account. A clause in the terms and conditions of use to allow access to a nominated person is another of the campaign’s recommendations.

The greater the public awareness there is of these issues, the greater the pressure on governments and service providers will be to act.

Memcom, Rachel Appleton 29 September 2023
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