Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Social media should make it easier to plan 'digital afterlife'

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Google has launched a settings feature that allows people to specify what happens to their accounts after a long period of "inactivity" -- meaning their death.

Google users can set an expiration date for their accounts -- three, six, nine or 12 months -- and allow trusted contacts to download specific data from accounts once the time has passed.

For example, you could give your spouse access to your photos and Google Plus profile and give a colleague your contact list and shared documents.

Settings can be changed at any time. It's wise to keep this information current so your private files don't fall into the hands of a vengeful ex or a resentful former coworker.

Facebook, Twitter and other social-networking sites don't make end-of-life planning so easy. Facebook will not disclose login information to family and friends of a dead person unless it receives a court order. Loved ones can request to memorialize a page -- that is, friends can still write on the person's wall and browse photos, but no one can sign in to the account. All messages are sealed.

Verified family members can request that a Facebook page be deleted. But if there is no consensus on what to do with the account, it can create a rift in the family. Some families and friends find solace in visiting the Facebook page of someone they've lost. Some argue that it's better to remove the page.

Twitter will work with an executor of the estate or an immediate family member to deactivate an account. That requires a copy of the death certificate and a signed statement that explains the relationship of the person making the request.

There are plenty of cases, though, in which people don't know all the social media monikers used by a family member. Many parents have no idea their children use Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare or Instagram -- much less what they are. They're not likely to spend time tracking down accounts and contacting social-networking sites.

No, this isn't the highest priority when someone dies. But social-media sites can help survivors make this unfortunate task a little easier.

Five states have enacted laws that authorize the transfer of a deceased person's digital assets to the executor or manager of the estate. Connecticut and Rhode Island's laws apply only to email. Indiana's law applies to any electronically stored documents, and Oklahoma and Idaho include social media.

But the better approach is for the social media companies to adopt privacy policies that are similar to Google's. People could determine exactly who will get what -- just as they do in a will.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2013 A9

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