How Google wants to help you plan your digital afterlife

If you're a Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Google+, or Google Drive user, it might be a good idea to look into Google's new Inactive Account Manager

Don't leave your loved ones confused about what to do with your digital remains once you're gone.
(Image credit: Thinkstock)

Not even Google can tell you what will happen to you after you die — though it will give you lots of ideas, if you ask — but you can now tell Google what you want to happen to your digital property when you shuffle off this mortal coil.

The issue of what to do with your email account, tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media treasures (or secrets) is something companies like Google and Twitter are increasingly having to grapple with, though they'd rather not. The U.S. government is even encouraging people to make a "social media will" to lay out what (if anything) you want your loved ones to do with your digital life — a step that would require appointing a legal online executor. Entrepreneurs have creatively tackled the problem, too — with everything from interactive server-equipped eTombstones to services that will post your designated "last words" on Facebook.

Google's new solution, the admittedly unpoetic Inactive Account Manager, sounds like a much easier solution. This is how Google's Andreas Tuerk explains how the company "will enable you to plan your digital afterlife — in a way that protects your privacy and security — and make life easier for your loved ones after you're gone":

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You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason. For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube. Before our systems take any action, we'll first warn you by sending a text message to your cell phone and email to the secondary address you've provided. [Google]

It should probably be called "Google Death Manager," says Kashmir Hill at Forbes, but "this is actually a really great feature for the information giant to add."

Google knows so much about us; it has an amazing archive of our personal history. Depending on how many Google products you use, it may have an archive of your searches, your emails, your chats, your phone calls, your documents, your private photos, and your private videos. Those archives are a vibrant blend of the mundane, the hidden, the intimate, and the secret for each of us. [Forbes]

What's missing from the list of services the "Death Manager" covers? Any "music, books, and movies contained in Google Play," says Jeff John Roberts at GigaOm. That's not really Google's fault — like with Apple's iTunes, "Google Play customers don't actually own the items they buy," legally. That's kind of a bummer, because "people are leaving behind fewer physical artifacts... for loved ones to remember them by." Your children may not inherit your virtual record collection or library.

Still, "this is a great common-sense solution to handling inactive accounts, but it's also rare to see online," says Marshall Lemon at The Escapist. Facebook will "memorialize" an account if family provides proof of death, and Twitter has an even more involved process. It's better for everyone if users are in charge of managing their own digital afterlife, so watch for other social media services to follow Google's lead. "After all, we may be spending more time on the internet than ever before, but we still never really know when that time is up."

Google's system also "opens up an interesting question," says Frederic Lardinois at TechCrunch: "What happens when you have told the system to delete all of your data and there is a family member or other interested party who wants access to your account?" Google's answer is that they will honor the user's preference, "to the extent permitted by law." The law, right now, would seem to favor the user, as several families have found, to their great frustration.

Well, "there's a reason that people keep some things private even inside public services like those provided by Google," Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group, tells Computerworld. "If someone was able to get at that information after your death, it could cause emotional or even legal problems for others." If Google's Inactive Account Manager doesn't solve every thorny issue relating to the social media detritus we leave behind, it's still a good thing, Olds adds. "It's going to force people to think about what they want done with their digital artifacts and data after they're gone."

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