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New Google service lets users plan 'digital afterlife'

While most of us will prepare a will at some point in our lives in order to divvy up physical assets, what happens to our digital lives?

Google tackled the subject of the "digital afterlife" with the launch of a service that will allow users to designate how they want their accounts handled after they die.

The offering, dubbed Inactive Account Manager, lets people "tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason," Google said in a blog post.

Inactive Account Manager ("not a great name, we know," Google said) gives Google users a few options for how Google should handle account information.

One option is to set a timeout period. If your account is dormant for three, six, nine, or 12 months, for example, Google will delete your data or categorise it as inactive.

Users can also designate up to 10 trusted contacts, who will receive data from some or all of your Google services, including: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice; and YouTube.

The search giant will alert users via text or email one month before any data is deleted or handed over to a third party.

"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," Google said.

While this might sound like one of Google's elaborate April Fools' Day jokes, the question of a digital afterlife has become a very real issue as more and more people join - and grow old - on social media.

The topic has actually been around for at least a decade. Back in 2004, the family of a US Marine killed in Iraq battled with Yahoo for access to his email account. Justin Ellsworth's family went to court over the matter, and was granted access to his account in April 2005, the AP reported.

That same year, meanwhile, saw the launch of MyDeathSpace, a site that highlighted the MySpace accounts of members who had passed away.

In 2009, Facebook provided more details on the process for memorialising the profiles of deceased members. The company said that deceased members will not appear in the suggestions box, and that only confirmed friends can see that person's profile or find them in search.