Google has opened a new service to let people control what happens to their email, online photos and blogposts saved in its accounts, as concern grows over what happens to users' "digital life" when they die.
Called Inactive Account Manager – which Google's Andreas Tuerk accepts is "not a great name" – it will let users decide whether to trigger it if they haven't logged in for three, six, nine or 12 months, and then either delete their data or send all or selected elements to a nominated person of their choice.
The move comes after increasing concern about problems encountered by families who have been trying to access or shut down accounts on sites such as Facebook after the sudden death of relatives, and amid controversy over the proposed "right to be forgotten" that the European Union is trying to introduce over digital information.
Google's new service joins a number of offerings to handle the aftermath of a "digital death", typified by services such as Entrustet, which let people decide what messages and access to information they want surviving relatives or friends to see after their death. With use of social networks becoming prevalent and an important window into peoples' lives and friends, there have been recent examples of relatives of the dead being unable to gain access to the dead peoples' accounts: the family of one soldier was refused access to his email by Yahoo, and some families have had to seek court orders to gain access to the Facebook accounts of the deceased.
A spokesperson for Facebook said that the company already offers "memorialising" services where an account can be kept open but will not be used for advertising.
"Immediate family members can have an account removed completely – but they may be required to provide proof of their familial status in addition to proof of death," Facebook's spokesperson said.
But the company is insistent that it will not simply give access to accounts to relatives of the deceased. "We are only able to consider requests for account contents of a deceased person from an authorised representative. The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order," it says in its guidance.
Google's system will only work if set up by the user. Otherwise, family members who want to get access to email, video or other Google accounts will still have to provide a court order, due to data protection laws.
Google's system will first send a warning text message to a mobile registered with the account, and a message to a backup email account nominated by the main account owner. If the user then checks in, the account is deemed active again and no action is taken.
Among the choices Google offers are having your data deleted (after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity) or to have data from various of the Google services you use sent to "trusted contacts". Among the services survivors could receive are all the pages where you clicked the "+1" buttons, any blogposts and comments from the Blogger service, your Google contacts and the members of your Google+ Circles, the files in your Google Drive, your Gmail email, Google+ Profiles, Picasa photo albums, Google Voice phone data and YouTube viewing.
"We hope that this new feature 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've gone," says Tuerk.
It is unclear whether a "right to be forgotten", as proposed by the EU, could be applied retrospectively after death. At present, the proposals only cover the deletion of information relating to a living individual.
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