One of the most haunting questions facing Web companies and their users is, what happens to the stuff of our digital lives after we die?
Are our Facebook status updates, Flickr photos and Gmail messages like physical journals and photo albums for our families to flip through? Should our iTunes playlists be like records passed down through generations? Would we rest easier knowing that our digital lives would exist for eternity, or that our private postings would stay that way?
On Thursday, Google announced a new tool for managing your digital afterlife. Google users can choose whether they want their information deleted or to name a beneficiary, as in a will. Users can have different directives for different products — deleting Gmail and Drive but sharing Picasa and YouTube content, for instance.
“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’re gone,” Andreas Tuerk, a Google product manager, wrote on the company’s public policy blog.
Google users choose whether to activate the feature after their accounts are inactive for three, six, nine or 12 months. Google will send a text message and e-mail before taking any action. The feature, called Inactive Account Manager, is accessible on the account settings page.
Before, survivors could gain access to data stored with Google only with a court order, and that was rare.
Google introduced the feature as states begin to pass laws about what happens to digital remains. Federal privacy laws do not generally address the issue, but Congress is considering it. Google often says it prefers technological solutions to legislative ones.
Other companies are also thinking about the issue. Facebook has grappled with how to confirm that users have died — so the site doesn’t suggest becoming friends with them, for instance — and how to handle it when survivors use a deceased person’s page as a memorial.
And Evernote is working on Evernote Century, which would guarantee that information stored on Evernote is accessible for 100 years and let people designate who can have access to it, even if Evernote goes out of business.
Of course, if we reach the Singularity, as many in the tech world believe we will, we will not need these tools because we will all live forever.