Digital Divorce: 'Til Tech Do Us Part
When a formerly happy couple calls it quits, who gets the Farmville money in the divorce settlement?
Technology permeates nearly every inch of life today, including love and marriage. The Internet provides ways for singles to meet, gadgets and devices present opportunities and challenges to married couples, and increasingly social media plays a key role in the break-up of previously happy unions.
In addition to facilitating the love and marriage dance, technology -- in the form of both gadgets and data -- is becoming a contentious element in the process of splitting up. Questions like who gets the iPad in a divorce are now more complicated, running into issues like: who has cloud access to the family data, who owns the virtual assets in Farmville and how to split up Facebook friends.
Internet's "Love Story" Turns into "Defending Your Life"
People have been using sites like eHarmony and Match.com to meet up for over a decade now. But just as the Internet can grant love in a lasting online connection, it can take it away in a nasty status update, a gossipy text, or an indiscreet picture posting.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have ballooned in popularity with everyone and their mother, brother, sister and even their grandma joining in on the fun.
With so many people sharing so much on a site many perceived to be private, these online places became fertile flirting ground. Earlier this year, a survey revealed the extent of this misbehavior, saying one-third of divorce cases in England implicated Facebook. The 5,000 people polled cited three reasons for listing the social network in divorce petitions -- sending inappropriate messages to the opposite sex, posting negative comments about exes on the social network, and friends disclosing a spouse's behavior.
In March, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found 80 percent of divorce cases included social media posts, mostly from Facebook, as evidence in the past five years.
There are even tools for those trying to hide their bad behavior, a telling sign that there is a problem. Apps like "IWipe" erase all evidence of "digital lipstick," by deleting stored data and preventing the tracking of its members' activities on the site. The app is created by a dating site, whose slogan "Life is short. Have an affair," underscores its mission to help users shield data from suspecting spouses.
And once couples file the divorce papers, social media continues to play a paramount role as couples, and now their attorneys, sift through these feeds to bolster their claims of infidelity in divorce cases and parental deficits in custody disputes.
The situation is at the point where divorcing couples are being ordered to share their Facebook passwords and other online accounts, underscoring their importance in family court cases.
For example, a Connecticut judge issued the order in response to the husband's revelation his wife wrote incriminating posts on Facebook about her feelings towards the children and her ability to care for them on the couple's shared computer. Wife Courtney Gallion was also ordered to hand over passwords for her eHarmony and Match.com accounts.
Some may see the judge's order in the Gallion case as court-sanctioned hacking, but others see it as a reasonable request for a relevant piece of a family court puzzle. Regardless of the viewpoint, the reality is as people increasingly welcome technology to bind their families together, there will be a reckoning when there is a decision to split apart.
Divvying Up the Digital Assets
In the case of a divorce, what happens to this virtual property a couple has acquired together?
Splitting up today means couples need to consider what to do with items beyond pots, pans, pictures, music collections, and other testaments to a life once shared. It extends to technology devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, Xbox, and more complicated and intangible items like iTunes and Flickr accounts, Twitter followers, and even gaming avatars and virtual goods.
The process is simpler if each person in a couple kept things separately -- simply unfriend the hostile in-laws and others who side with ex and reset privacy settings. Also, if you didn't mingle your iTunes account with a spouse and continued to maintain your own file sharing system, for example, it is a little clearer.
But, for couples who have merged all their technology, share social media accounts and maybe even store it all conveniently in one giant, familial cloud, then the situation is murkier. In a contentious divorce, details on how to divide digital goods like a shared photo site or an extensive movie streaming library will increasingly be addressed in divorce agreements and separation plans.
Beyond this, another technologically thorny issue facing divorcing families is how to settle virtual assets, which are non-physical objects that Internet users buy for use in online communities and games.
In Farmville, Second Life and other online games, people spend money to buy enhanced goods and features like pets, coins, avatar clothing and weapons, and virtual farm real estate for these and other online activities. In some games, players trade and sell these goods and can convert them back to real-world currency, often for a profit.
These kinds of activities raise questions in divorce settlements because if the virtual goods were purchased during a marriage, they may be considered community property, and it in the vast virtual world, the worth of these assets varies.
Attorney Anita Ramasastry, a Justia columnist, points out in a recent article that the 2010 sale of Club Neverdie, in the multiplayer Entropia Universe, the first virtual world with a real-cash economy, can give a glimpse into the kind of dollar amounts these virtual assets can reach. In 2005, player Jon "Neverdie" Jacobs bought an asteroid for $100,000, and later sold the virtual nightclub for over $600,000, reportedly the highest price ever paid for a virtual asset.
In explaining why someone would pay such a startling amount for a virtual property, Ramasastry wrote, "Because Club Neverdie had become a go-to spot for players visiting its nightclub, stadium, and mall. As a result, Jacobs was making around $200,000 in actual cash every year from players' purchasing virtual goods and services."
Alternately, the dilemma could extend beyond gaming. For example, late last year, the S(edition) website debuted, offering original, downloadable art from renowned artists, who produce original creations to be displayed on phones, tablets, televisions and computers.
So far, artists like Michael Craig-Martin, Wim Wenders and Shepard Fairey, who created President Obama's "Hope" poster, have signed on to the digital platform, which allows consumers to purchase a less expensive version from their favorite artists. Still, the limited edition mobile works cost between $6 and $600, so an authenticated collection could end up being a considerable marital property whose ownership could come into play during a split.
As the importance of virtual property and digital goods continues to rise, corresponding property and matrimonial laws will need to evolve to discuss them. Today's personal relationships are so intertwined with technology -- online sites can spark a match, social media can cement the bond or present temptations that dissolve it, and digital evidence is growing in divorce filings. In light of these trends, it can't be too surprising that the role technology plays in creating new bonds and property interests will continue to challenge courts and lawyers as they decide how to divide them when love goes sour. ♦
Categories: Culture Desk