Google Searching for Answers to Digital Legacy Problems

The digital legacy that a deceased person leaves behind has been a much-talked-about subject in the estates world in recent years.  See, for example, blogs on the subject by Moira VisoiuSaman Jaffery or Nadia Harasymowycz.  There’s a March Hull on Estates podcast about this, and another from July 2011.

While there have been some legislative and judicial developments in some jurisdictions (see Nebraska’s Bill 783 for an example), it has largely been left to private industry to resolve the problems created when a person passes away leaving a large digital footprint behind.

Fortunately, Google has stepped up to the plate and introduced a new policy to resolve this issue with respect to its services.  Google’s new Inactive Account Manager feature takes leaps forward towards resolving digital legacy issues.

Called a “digital will” by some media sources including the Toronto Star, the Inactive Account Manager allows users to manage what happens to their Google-related digital assets on death, or on prolonged account inactivity.  Users may set a period of time of inactivity (three, six, nine, or twelve months), after which Google will delete their data.  Before anything is deleted, Google will notify you by email or by text message to your cell phone.  If users would prefer that their data be preserved, there is an option to have some or all of it sent to trusted contacts.  The services to which the service applies include +1s, Blogger, Contacts and Circles, Drive, Gmail, Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams, Picasa Web Albums, Google Voice, and Youtube.

This service is a clever and easy to use way to manage digital assets.  It does raise a number of questions, however.  How does this policy interact with legislation and case law about digital assets in jurisdictions that have these policies?  Will Facebook, or other online services follow suit and prepare similar policies?  Does an estate trustee under a will in Ontario have the authority (or the responsibility) to collect your digital assets from the person named on your Inactive Account Manager?

Perhaps the answers to these questions will become clear with time.  In the interim, it appears that we are left with a patchwork of policies created by different online service providers with different intentions and different philosophies.  Consider, for example, _LIVESON, a service that analyzes a user’s Twitter habits and generates automated tweets for him or her after death.  Control is placed in the hands of an “executor” who manages your _LIVESON “will”.  Although somewhat eerie, this is an interesting way to ensure that a person’s online presence not only persists after death, but continues to develop and grow.

If you are a Google user, it may be worth checking out the Inactive Account Manager and configuring your settings.  The photos, blogs, friends and videos left behind on a user’s death may mean a lot to grieving loved ones.

When updating an estate plan, digital assets are an important aspect to consider.  Lawyers should be cognizant of the issues surrounding digital legacies, and should discuss them with their clients.  People planning their wills should think about the intangibles they leave behind as well.  And if you aren’t sure where to find this information, try Google.

Who will get your iTunes when you die?

Control of a digital property – AA case

We often forget that digital property is part of our daily lifes, especially when the conditions create distance between us and the physical world. This is the case with Alison Atkins. She died at 16, of a long struggle with disease, and got more and more connected to the online due to her situation.

Because her sister could not gain access to her computer at first, then to the online services which hosted her writings, poems and pictures, the accounts have been closed one after another, like parts of her online existence getting erased.

The reason behind this is that the law, privacy law, makes it great for living users to control their information, but nothing is prepared for the death of the very same users. To make things even more complicated, these laws completly differ from one country to another. In the case of Alison, they found out a some writings that were made to stay hidden, and service providers are in their right not to disclose the communications.

A google representative mentionned that “It’s crucial to strike a balance” between families and the user’s right to privac

Clear rules needed for managing digital afterlife

Revenues generating online operations

Like some, you may also have a side project (or a few) which you have built over time, and that provide you with some cash. Online advertising, tools, online services, selling documents, … are a few projects that you will have to consider. If you’re not here to take care of them, who should? Do you want someone to take over — or to close the activity? The question of an ebook is another example. If you have an ebook sold on Amazon, your heirs are supposed to receive the intellectual property rights.

eBay stores an be an other issue. eBay will close any store on demand and reception of a proof of death, but in the meanwhile, all the trading comments, feedback and partners can be lost. In a market where trust is gold, it can be threatening for an online business.

Another issue can also be domain names. Today, some domain names can sell for tens of thousands of dollars apiece and represent a part of the online business. But holding such a name is similar to a lease: if you fail to renew it on time, competition can seize it at a very low price. Think of it carefully, as they are businesses : and most businesses have been transmitted in legacies for centuries!