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 Visoiu, Saman 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.