Inheritance of personal data: the future of succession in the metaverse

By Amrit Labhuram

Humans are a profoundly social species. Within half a century, the nature of social connections amongst humans has undergone significant change. From physical interactions, we have transitioned our social connections to global online communities such as Facebook, Twitch and Snapchat. 

Presently, social interactions are on the verge of the next major evolution as we enter the age of the metaverse. The metaverse consists of 3D virtual worlds within which humans can create alternate realities to interact with their own digital assets, and develop virtual clones of themselves.

The technologies that make up the metaverse include virtual reality, characterised by virtual worlds, as well as augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds.

Innovative digital artists and IT architects are building avatars in the metaverse that can generate income for their owners. One such example is a project undertaken by the Singapore-based startup ‘OWNFT World’, that plans to develop and sell avatars that will star in virtual fashion shows, music videos, and animated series. The project, called ‘Guardians of Fashion‘ or GOF, has teamed up with Warner Music Group alongside streaming networks and fashion brands to produce the videos and shows.

When an avatar is cast in a show or video, its owner receives a portion of the revenue via GOF community tokens, which can be swapped for other digital assets like stablecoins, a class of cryptocurrencies that are pegged to a ‘stable’ reserve asset like the U.S. dollar, through a decentralised exchange.

In the foreseeable future, advancements in artificial intelligence will allow avatars to be developed to behave like their owner through the use of their personal data. Developers can use sensitive personal data such as the owner’s conscience and beliefs, in order to create a virtual clone that can think, act, and make decisions like the owner. 

Celebrities such as Travis Scott have realised the potential of the metaverse, and as early as 2020, he conducted a 9-minute-long Fortnite concert for which he earned approximately $20 million. This begs the question – What happens when an avatar owner dies in the real world but their virtual clone lives on in the metaverse, generating revenue from their performances?

Kenya’s Data Protection Act and subsequent regulations have not anticipated the inheritance of personal data. Furthermore, the Law of Succession Act does not directly speak to the inheritance of personal data or allude to the succession of digital assets which includes “any digital material owned by an enterprise or individual including text, graphics, audio, video and animations.” 

Instead the succession of digital assets is presumed in intestate matters (dying without a will), the digital assets would generally vest in the immediate next of kin of the deceased, as determined by the Law of Succession Act. However, it is yet to be determined how Kenyan courts will rule on matters of digital assets succession, considering the divergent terms and conditions of each service provider relating to access and ownership of digital data stored on their respective platforms.

Rwanda’s recently enacted data protection law offers a potential solution by creating a provision for the succession of personal data. The provision under Article 25 states that if a data subject has left behind a will, their successor can inherit full or restricted rights relating to the processing of personal data kept by the organisation processing their data, if the personal data still need to be used. 

In the context of the metaverse, Rwanda’s provision on inheritance of personal data can  possibly be interpreted to be applicable if a deceased person’s personal data (clone avatar) is actively generating income in the metaverse. 

For instance, a world renowned yoga practitioner decides to conduct yoga classes in a virtual studio within the metaverse using an avatar that has been designed to resemble and behave as his clone. The yoga master’s virtual clone can be programmed to offer interactive classes on a subscription basis to millions of people and generates huge monthly revenues. However, the yoga master eventually dies in the real world but his clone continues to conduct virtual yoga classes and is gaining more customers annually. Based on Rwanda’s law, if the yoga master had a will within which he specified the successors to his personal data (clone avatar), they will be entitled to part or full ownership of the avatar and thus be entitled to the revenues generated by the virtual avatar. 

The concept of inheritance of personal data in the metaverse may be extremely abstract at the time of writing this blog. However, it is crucial to anticipate and develop solutions for the adversities that await us in the future.

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