Searching up your name online can set off alarm bells. You may find old photos of yourself, information from inactive social media accounts, comments under blog posts… clearly, the internet doesn’t forget. Once something is published online, control over that information is completely lost.
When personal and professional circumstances change, the out-of-control information on the web can become a double-edged sword. Nobody knows this better than political candidates, who often undergo a heavy revision and cleanup of their digital content when running for office.
It’s becoming more and more common for people to want to completely disappear from the digital world. They yearn to be able to type in their name and find that absolutely nothing appears. This may be due to a sudden awareness about privacy or labor issues. But is it really a good thing for there to be no trace of someone on the internet?
“Today, not having a digital footprint is counterproductive… it generates a certain amount of mistrust,” explains Daniel López, CEO and co-founder of Youforget.me, a platform dedicated to managing user privacy on the internet. This expert recommends “managing our digital selves” so that the information available online is consistent with a person’s profile “and inspires trust.”
Is it possible to completely disappear from the internet? “I would say no,” explains Alejandro Abascal, founder of the Remove Group – a company dedicated precisely to deleting personal information from the web. “There are many environments on the internet that are impossible to control, such as the dark web,” he adds. However, you can remove “the vast majority of traffic” related to yourself. This expert affirms that, for instance, “new legislation at the European level” is evolving to respond to privacy needs, such as “the right to be forgotten, the right to dignity on the internet, or the data protection law.” The EU’s new legislation protects a citizen “unless [they] are a notorious person of public interest, in which case it conflicts with freedom of information.”
There’s a fine line between the right to privacy and the right to information – one that is subject to interpretation. It generates “an important controversy, generating one of the great debates,” says the expert, referring to ongoing discussions about privacy in the internet age.
Deleting inactive accounts
To delete all traces of yourself online, you should start with the simplest action: deleting inactive accounts for services that you don’t use. Unfortunately – unless you have a detailed record of everything – the only way to pull up these pages is to do your own search on Google to identify traces of your digital footprint. The bad news is that it’s not always easy to remove personal information. In fact, there are some sites that make it nearly impossible to remove your info.
The JustDelete.me webpage offers information deletion instructions for the main web sites, along with traffic light colors, indicating their level of difficulty. While scrolling through them, you can see that some have the “impossible” label, due to the amount of difficulties presented by the respective service provider.
Deleting social media profiles
Social media has become a massive repository of personal information, in which – with a little time and patience – you can draw up a profile of a person and their activity simply by examining their posts. Anyone wishing to erase their online presence and control their personal information should consider completely deleting their accounts. You may remember when Facebook was in the eye of the hurricane and became the target of a campaign that invited its users to delete their accounts, due to a massive data leak that took place at the hands of Cambridge Analytica. Personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users was collected – without their consent – by the British consulting firm.
The issue isn’t simply that what is published on social media offers significant personal information about a user. The bigger problem is that this information is also never deleted. “Our memory will continue to be present once we’ve died,” warns Daniel López, “and it’s essential to manage social media accounts, eliminating those that are in disuse or that don’t represent us.”
Requesting the removal of information
Immediate satisfaction rules on the internet: you sign up for a service and enjoy it instantly. But does the same thing apply when you want to unsubscribe from it? It depends on the service… although generally, the answer is no. Getting out of an online service can be tortuous, if not impossible. But there’s no other choice but to go through the process. The first thing that someone who wants to completely disappear from the internet (or, at least, be irrelevant to search engines) should do is perform a Google search of themselves and identify the sites where they appear.
In these cases, it’s best to use a hyperlink storage service – such as Pocket or Instapaper – to store the different websites in which our name appears. For what purpose? To request, one by one, the deletion of data. Service providers “have a period of 30 days” to resolve a demand for data deletion, Alejandro Abascal points out. “If it’s a large platform, the response period is 15 days longer.”
In the event of no response from the services that host our personal information, the next step is to “request [its] removal from the search engines themselves,” Abascal recommends. In theory, when the water tap is closed, the flood ends… but not really.
“The search engines only have the obligation to eliminate your name,” Absacal warns. Photos, videos and other memories will remain visible online and present on the servers of the companies that refuse to delete your account.
“Sabotage” those who refuse
As online services don’t always respond to requests for the deletion of the data, in this case, the saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” applies to its full extent. The next objective will be to confuse internet searchers, in a tactic that is known as “infosuicide.” A desperate user can fill the web with empty references to themselves.
What does this consist of? Well, you can create pages (filled with neutral content) that bear your name. Or, alternatively, you can modify your name and make it unintelligible to the rogue services that deny people the right to disappear from the online world.
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