It's Time to Write a Will for Your Digital Life

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Google's new "digital afterlife" feature feels creepy and morbid, but it's the kind of responsible data control we should embrace for the rest of our Internet selves. With the "Inactive Account Manager"—the sad, emotionless name Google chose for the product—you get to make a will for your Google accounts. Google uses the term "inactive account" to make it less morbid, but that's just a euphemism. Call it what you want, but this is a very necessary set-up for figuring what happens to your private, personal information after you die and all websites with passwords should have something like it.

Here's how Google's works: Once an account hasn't been in use for a certain amount of time—theoretically because that person is no longer alive—you can have Google share your data with a trusted source or delete it, or both. You get to pick the settings, which include a "time out" period that puts your account in this "inactive mode" after a period of time you select. At that point, Google will notify you via text and e-mail to make sure you really want to do this. Then, at that point, it will either send that data to a select person, delete the account entirely, or both. 

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The big breakthrough here is that Google lets you plan ahead. Twitter and Facebook both have policies for the accounts of users who die, but they're retroactive. As explained earlier this year after a young rapper turned his account into a suicide note, Twitter will deactivate the account if someone authorized to act on behalf of the estate contacts them. It doesn't give the estate many options: Twitter will keep an account open or delete it forever.

Maybe those are the only options you really need for Twitter, which most people largely fill with ephemera like jokes and news. But, what about a site like Facebook, which has photos and messages? In addition to the delete-or-keep,  Facebook also offers a memorialization option in which the content is preserved and viewable to acquaintances, but the account will no longer accept friend requests or show up in places like "People You May Know" boxes. But, again, this is only for after-the-fact, when a family probably has a lot more on their mind than what to do with a Facebook profile. And then there are all the non-social services with even more important stuff on them, like Dropbox or PayPal. 

Just like in the analog world, as uncomfortable as it is, we should plan these things out. There are services out there, like Cirrus Legacy that set-up digital wills for people, storing passwords in a special location for when people die. But they are far from mainstream. Last November, that company had 500 clients, according to The Telegraph.

Image via Shutterstock by alexskopje

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.