Last week Google announced Inactive Account Manager, a way to decide what happens to your Google accounts when you die. Google is the first major company to create a viable, real service to actually help their users plan for their death. Four and a half years after Jesse and I started Entrustet in a library at the University of Wisconsin, we’re finally seeing the first real, concrete step from a major company to address this massive problem.
Google’s system allows you to choose whether your accounts are deleted or transferred to a trusted third party when your accounts become inactive. You set the inactivity period, between 3-12 months, and then Google will send you a text message to make sure you’re actually inactive (read:dead) before taking any action. I’d prefer a third verification step, like contacting a nominated third party (our digital executor concept) to verify you’re actually dead, as I believe google will end up deleting or transferring accounts of people who are still living. These “deathswitches” are not fool proof and I think one extra layer of protection is a good compromise.
All in all, it’s great to see. It’s an incredible first step. We started Entrustet in November 2008 after reading about US Marine Justin Ellsworth’s family’s efforts to gain access to his Yahoo account after he was killed in Iraq. We created Entrustet to make sure that nobody would ever have to go to court to get access to their loved one’s digital information and to make sure that people could control what happened.
When we first talked to Google, Facebook and other major companies in 2009 and 2010, they were interested but made it very clear they weren’t interested in doing anything about the problem yet. Over the past four and a half years, we, along with our competitors, we featured in just about every single newspaper and major internet publication in the world, bringing massive attention to the problem. Our acquisition brought even more PR. More and more people had personal experiences with people who passed away, leaving their digital lives a mess for their survivors. Some states even have started to change their laws.
I expect other companies to follow Google’s lead and create a digital inheritance manager. There’s an opportunity for a startup to create a 3rd party SaaS app that any company can plug into, but it will be hard sledding. It’s a massive market, but a hard one to crack. There are at least 3m people who die on Facebook each year and Google’s numbers are likely the same. Every online service has a similar problem. So do offline services.
Alternatively, Google (or Facebook), could become the central hub of death verification online and sell access to their API for anyone, including governments, insurance companies and any online service to use, under the assumption that if someone’s dead on google, you can trace their online profiles based on Google connections, email accounts and personal data. Google could do it if they wanted and become the arbiters of life and death online. I believe this is at least a $100m per year business, maybe more.
It’s been fun seeing how this has evolved since we came up with the idea in 2008. It will be interesting to see what happens. Stay tuned, there is going to be massive innovation in this morbid, yet necessary industry.