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Google's new solution: Inactive Account Manager

Google posted an announcement on their blog on April 11th, 2013 that caused a stir, about a new service they are launching: Inactive Account Manager. More information is available here, on Google's general support, under "User Accounts".

The service allows users to pre-set for each of their Google accounts (Blogger, Google+, Picasa, YouTube) what they would like to have happen with these accounts in case something happens to them: would they like for the account to be deleted, should a family member or close friend be given access to the account and if so who, and what are the contact details for the people (up to ten) who may be allowed access.

Activating the service doesn't necessarily have to result from something as terminal as death, but rather even through something temporary like memory loss, accident, disease, disability, injury or anything else that may cause us to lose track of our account password, or to become unable to operate it.

These kinds of services have been widely available in the past - but not through the providers themselves, being offered instead through external companies that specialize in digital estate management or digital heritage. A partial list of these can be found in this post. Google is the first online service provider to be offering these services itself.

There's a difference between allowing users to choose and decide for themselves what they plan to do with their digital or virtual assets after they die - a service that until now we've only seen from specialist asset management companies - and the provider's policy determining what happens to users' digital or virtual assets after they die, without their choosing or deciding on it - which is the policy that we've seen up till now (you can find many example in this post. Google is the first trailblazer in this regard.

Google writes about their service

What should happen to your photos, emails and documents when you stop using your account? Google puts you in control.
You might want your data to be shared with a trusted friend or family member, or, you might want your account to be deleted entirely. There are many situations that might prevent you from accessing or using your Google account. Whatever the reason, we give you the option of deciding what happens to your data. 
Using Inactive Account Manager, you can decide if and when your account is treated as inactive, what happens with your data and who is notified.
Google allows users to define for each account what is the time period allowed until this account is defined as inactive: three, six, nine, 12, 15 or 18 months. The timer starts from the last time you logged into the account:

You set a timeout period, after which your account can be treated as inactive. The timeout period starts with your last sign-in to your Google account.

And on the next screen:

Google explains that it measures activity on several parameters: account logins (typing in your username and password), using the Gmail app on your mobile and using location tags (check-ins) on Android.

After the timeout period you've set-up for defining the account as inactive is nearly over, you'll receive a warning by SMS and an email sent to the alterative email address (the same address used to restore your forgotten Google account password), informing you that the account will soon be tagged as inactive, and that your pre-set instructions will take effect. The warning allows you to enter your account and stop the activation in case this is not the "real thing".

Inactive Account Manager will alert you via text message and optionally email before the timeout period ends.

And on the next screen:

If you chose for the account to be deleted, it will be erased completely, including anything you've publicly posted using this account.

If you wish, instruct Google to delete your account on your behalf.

And on the next screen:

Google allows you to define contacts for one of two purposes: to let them know the account has become inactive, or to allow them access to its content. If you chose to allow a person or several people access to your account's content, you'll need to provide Google with both their email address and phone number, so that there's no fear of the information falling into the wrong hands (if a friend or family member's account is hacked, for example).

Add trusted contacts who should be made aware that you are no longer using your account. You can also share data with them if you like.

And on the next screen:

While defining your trusted contacts as such they will not receive a notification message - it's up to the user whether or not to let them know about their new role. Google will only make contact with them whenever the inactive account instructions take effect.

If you chose only to inform them, the email message will look like this:

John Doe ( instructed Google to send you this mail automatically after John stopped using his account.
Sincerely,The Google Accounts Team
If you chose to provide them with access to your account, the email from Google will look like this:
John Doe ( instructed Google to send you this mail automatically after John stopped using his account.
John Doe has given you access to the following account data:
Web Albums 
Download John's data here
Sincerely,The Google Accounts Team
Note that unlike the solutions from digital estate or digital heritage management companies, Google will not give your chosen contacts your account password - or the ability to use it - just the option of downloading the information.

When I was in London in October 2012 at the Digital Death Day unconference, I gave the discussion I initiated the title: What can be done that hasn't yet? And what I suggested was exactly this: transfer the handling of these issues from external companies to the providers themselves.

The solution I suggested was that in the same way that signing up for an online service requires checking a box that confirms that we've read the terms of service, and without which you cannot join, that immediately after that you would have a second mandatory box where you would need to specify what you'd like to happen to this account after you die. And just as we sometimes have to confirm our password or set a new one, that we would periodically need to confirm that decision. The post detailing my unconference experience can be found here.

I'm glad to see Google taking a huge step in this direction and offering an "in house" solution - but the fact that it's optional rather than mandatory makes it good but not very good.

I thank many people who sent me the link to Google's new policy when it was published, and especially Paul Solomon, Head of Communications & Public Affairs in Google (Israel & Greece) , that kindly sent me the link immediately after it was first posted.

Thank you Uri Gonda for translating this post. 

I wrote a separate post with my thoughts regarding this tool. 

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