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Google gives users the tools to name heirs for online data

As many of us in Massachusetts and nationwide know, the Internet continues to change and play an ever-increasing role in most people's lives. It has become a tool that many of us use to store and create data, share photographs, or create online personas. The issue of who controls this digital information after a person has died has therefore been widely discussed. While we have tools like wills and estate plans to assign heirs and beneficiaries for our tangible assets, assigning these roles to handle digital information has been much trickier.

The issue of transferring ownership over digital property has been a very complex situation. Privacy laws in the United States make it virtually impossible to give another person control over online data and accounts, although there are legislative moves being made to tackle this issue. However, some Internet companies are taking matters into their own hands.

Google has taken a new approach to handling a person's data after they have passed away. While they cannot transfer control of a person's YouTube, Google+, Gmail or cloud storage actual account to another person, Google has made it possible for users to assign someone else control over the data. So, while a person would not be able to send an email from another person's account, he or she would be able to access the user's data.

With the new tool, current Google product users dictate what to do with their data after a specified period of inactivity. Users can either have all their data deleted or they can have the data sent to another person who can then decide what to do with the information.

Like any plan that dictates what should happen to a person's assets after he or she has died, the Google data transfer should be considered carefully. It is important that the recipient of this responsibility understands that caring for a person's digital afterlife can be a difficult task, as it may involve serious emotional and legal challenges.

While Google is leading the way in giving people control of their digital data after they have died, they are certainly not alone. Many other companies are working to develop similar plans, and legislative actions are being explored which could give people the same type of control over their digital assets that they have over their tangible assets.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Google Lets Users Plan 'Digital Afterlife' By Naming Heirs," Geoffrey A. Fowler, April 11, 2013

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