Google Death: New Feature Allows Users to Take Control of Their Digital Afterlife - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Google Death: New Feature Allows Users to Take Control of Their Digital Afterlife

Google Death: New Feature Allows Users to Take Control of Their Digital Afterlife

Google announced last week the launch of a new feature that allows its users to plan for what happens to their accounts when they die or can no longer use their account.  The feature, called Interactive Account Manager, allows users to set a “timeout period” of inactivity.  Google will send an alert one month before the inactivity deadline via text or email.  If Google hasn’t received a response from you by the time of the inactivity deadline, users can either choose to delete their data, or send it to up to ten “trusted contacts.”  Users can choose to send or delete data from some or all of a number of Google services including Gmail, Blogger, Pages and Streams, YouTube, Google Voice, Google Plus and Picasa.

Before the unveiling of the Inactive Account Manager, next of kin of deceased users did have some form of recourse for obtaining access to the deceased accounts.  Google’s general policy for account access for next of kin mirrors the current terms of service of Microsoft’s online e-mail service providers.   These policies allow for a next of kin to access the account after an extensive authentication process.  The applicant must provide an official death certificate, a document showing the relationship to the deceased (next of kin and/or executor or benefactor of their estate, or that you have power of attorney) and a photocopy of their government issued identification.  If a user has not enabled the Inactive Account Manager, the next of kin will have to go through these authentication steps to gain access to the account.

For the proponents of Google’s Inactive Account Manager, the biggest advantage the service provides is not just the possibility of account inheritance, but a simple, integrated system that a user can implement in a matter of clicks.  For example, under the former policy, the next of kin would have to assemble the documents required for authentication of the relationship, Google would process the request and notify the next of kin with a decision on the request of data.  There also remains the privacy concern of a deceased user who never wished any next of kin to gain access to their account.  The Inactive Account Manager seems entirely automated, and clearly shows the intent of the user.  The user-friendly nature of the feature is something Google’s extensive network of account holders are very excited about.

However, the entirely automated nature of the Inactive Account Manager may give rise to some concerns.  For instance, in a worst-case scenario, a user may designate a three-month period for deletion of his account.  If the forgets to check the account and does not receive the alert, all of his data will be automatically deleted.  Google has however added some safeguard to determine account activity in addition to usage of the Gmail account, including last sign-ins, a review of web history associated with the account and Android check-ins. Additionally, the same security and hacking concerns that plague all account users face accounts in the hands of trusted users.

Another concern that users have raised is the inability to use the Inactive Account Manager for Google Apps accounts.  The current feature only supports personal Gmail accounts.  It is likely the feature is not available for Google Apps accounts because third party companies, and not just Google, are responsible for the account data and information.  Google is probably hesitant to promise account transfer to those accounts that they do not maintain complete control over.

The general policy for transfer of accounts upon death of the user is not the norm among e-mail service providers and other online networks.  Yahoo mail users are subject to a strict non-transferability policy with no right of survivorship.  All rights Yahoo users have to their Yahoo account and contents are terminated upon the death of the user.  There have been some instances, most famously in the case of Marine Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth, where next of kin have overcome Yahoo’s non-transferability policy for the production of account data.  Ellsworth, a US Marine died in November 2004 on active duty in Afghanistan.  His family wished to gain access to his Yahoo account for the production of an online memorial.  Yahoo refused to turn over the account data, citing their own terms of service and privacy concerns.  Only after a lengthy probate court process, his family was able to obtain a court order for the production of the account data, which Yahoo complied with.

Additionally, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter only provide remedies for account deletion upon the death of a user, and provide no option for transfer of accounts or access to its contents.  Facebook’s default policy upon the death of a user is to freeze the account and turn it into a memorial version of the account.  A verified family member can request the deletion of the account, but Facebook maintains a disclaimer that any request for the contents of the account will require a court order.  Twitter maintains a similarly rigid policy for deceased users.   Only a verified family member or authorized representative can make a request for account deletion (after providing a copy of death certificate, government issued identification a signed statement verifying the relationship to the deceased user).  Twitter also states they “are unable to provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.”

Some developers have provided controversial applications for users to maintain their social media presence from beyond the grave.  Announced earlier this year, a Twitter application called “LivesOn” analyzes a user’s Twitter feed, aggregates interests and even syntax to post tweets in line with the user’s live Twitter feed.  Users will be asked to appoint an executor to take control of the account (similar to Google’s “trusted user” verification).  There are some concerns how successful a product with such a morbid spin on social media will be, but for users who wish for their account to live on after they have passed, this is the kind of workaround they will need to battle Twitter’s terms of service.

Services like Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter have remained staunch in their stance to maintain ultimate privacy of deceased users.  As users react to Google’s Inactive Account Manager, those sites with strict non-transferability terms of service may feel pressure to meet the standards Google has provided.

Kelly McCullough