As I’ve said time and again, we’re not exactly living in an era where user privacy is particularly valued or respected – at least in the Western world. No user has as much control over their personal information (and who can access it) as they should, and in most cases, the terms of service with which users sign away their rights to their privacy tend to be so arcane and obtuse as to be nearly unreadable by anyone without an hour or two to kill.

In such an environment, it’s nice to see an organization taking at least a small step in the right direction.

Last week, Google debuted a new feature across its family of websites, though its reasons for doing so were just a touch…morbid. The initiative is known as The Inactive Account Manager, and it essentially allows users to customize how their accounts will be managed in the event of their death. That’s the official word on it, anyway.

“Not many of us like thinking about death — especially our own,” reads Google’s explanation of the IAM. “But making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So today, we’re launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account.”

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This feature isn’t yet available for Google Apps, but regular users of Google’s services such as Gmail and Google+ can dictate the fate of their messages and data if their account becomes inactive for three, six, or twelve months. Users can choose total deletion of specific information, a complete wipe of every bit of data, or the forwarding of particularly important information (or everything, if you’re so inclined) to trusted contacts connected to the user through one’s Google account.

This is all accessible via your Google Account settings page.

So that you don’t inadvertently clear out your account, the IAM also allows you to set it up so that it alerts you before your set time-out period is up. That way, you can log back into your account to avoid losing access to your information.

All told, it seems like a rather useful tool, albeit a rather niche one, and as I’ve already said, it’s most definitely a step in the right direction.

Still, I’d argue that online organizations – including Google –  have a long way to go before they can truly be considered respectful of user rights. The IAM is certainly convenient, but one has to wonder if this is really an act of goodwill on Google’s part. After all, data on someone who’s no longer using their services (whether by reason of death or simply disinterest) is virtually useless to marketing firms. It may well be that Google is trying to keep its own stores of user data more organized. That’s a rather grim perspective, isn’t it?

Anyway, what do you folks think of Google’s Inactive Account Manager? Seem like something you’ll use?