Unease about your online identity shouldn’t be limited to how much information is publicly available. Online advertising is the engine that drives the Internet’s largest sites, including Google and Facebook, and it depends on your personal—and allegedly private—data for fuel. "The government, companies, and marketers all want us to share as much information as possible because that’s what’s good for them," says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "and it’s time to think of what’s good for us."
While most Internet users seem fine with privacy tradeoffs, the lack of control will lead some to consider the nuclear option: total Internet evacuation. But taking yourself offline isn’t as simple as logging out—it requires a little bit of work. Here’s how.
When a website is new, the last thing its creators are thinking about is how to help users leave. Thankfully, many of the Internet’s largest identity properties—Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft—are fairly mature and have evolved enough to offer well-defined, if well-hidden, escape plans.
If you’ve ever used Gmail, Google Docs, Google+, or Picasa, to name a few, then you have a Google account. Google accounts can contain an astounding amount of personal data—check google.com/dashboard to see exactly how much—but removing it is a straightforward process. Before you hit the switch, be sure to back up any information you want to keep—a Google account can be recovered for only a few months after its deletion. Google doesn’t have a software tool for exporting data from its services, but most services have their own, typically found under the settings menu on the upper-right-hand side of the screen. As with other webmail services, the easiest way to back up your Live or Hotmail messages is to add your account to a mail app such as Outlook or Apple’s Mail before deletion—this will have the added benefit of backing up your contacts.
Once you’ve copied your important data offline, navigate to your Google account dashboard (google.com/accounts). Next go to My Products, and click Edit. Then select Close Account and Delete All Services and Info Associated With It. You’ll be presented with a list of Google services that you’ve used in the past. (In my case, this included three that I didn’t remember signing up for.) Check the box next to each, along with the two are-you-really-sure boxes at the bottom, and select Delete Google Account. The account will be instantly wiped from the public Internet, but the company warns on its website that "residual . . . accounts may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our backup systems," but not be accessible in any way, "for an additional period of time."
Until 2008, there was no obvious way to permanently delete your information from Facebook. Instead, there was a Deactivate option only, which removed your profile from public view but left it on Facebook’s servers indefinitely. Thousands complained, so Facebook built a tool for permanently and instantly deleting user data—then promptly hid it away in the site’s Help section. To access it, log in to Facebook, navigate to facebook.com/help, and type "delete my account" in the search box. The top result will link you to the deletion page. Click Submit and confirm your choice, and you’re done. While Facebook doesn’t offer much help for backing up your data—a particular concern if you use Facebook to hold your photo collection—there are a number of free Facebook apps designed to archive your albums, such as Facebook Exporter for iPhoto and FBPhotoExport.
To pull yourself free from Microsoft’s services, go to account.live.com and scroll to the bottom of the page. Under the Other Options header, click Close Account. On the following page, reenter your account password and press Yes. Unfortunately, there is no account-wide export option.
Closing an Amazon account is a more roundabout process. Click Help in the upper-right-hand corner of any page on amazon.com and search "closing your account." On the resulting page, pick Contact Us, then click on Something Else. Below that, select Account Settings from the menu, then Close My Account. At the bottom of the page, click Send Us an Email, fill out the form, and send.
Most reputable websites will offer some sort of account deletion option. Smaller sites that have posted (or more likely, reposted) your data without your permission can prove more difficult; after all, the owners never had your permission to republish your blog posts, photos, or videos in the first place. Finding this type of information—or derogatory and misrepresentative comments about you—is no more difficult than doing a search on Google or Bing. (Be sure to place quotation marks around your name.)
Searching for yourself isn’t about narcissism; it’s not unusual for job recruiters, current employers, or even potential dates to vet new acquaintances on search engines. A misleading search result or libelous information could cause serious distress and do damage to your reputation.
On a smaller site, sending a direct request to a webmaster to pull infringing or upsetting material is your best course of action. if there is no prominently listed con- tact information for the site’s operator, or if you aren’t able to get a response from the listed address or phone number, you can find direct contact information for the site’s administrator by conducting a search on whois.net. Domain owners are required by the internet Corporation for assigned names and numbers to supply contact information for Whois searches, including a phone number. This may at least get you on the phone with someone or give you a working email address. Whether that will be of any help is a different story.
If a site refuses to take down content that belongs to you, you can try sending a takedown notice. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright act (DMCA), you are entitled to have infringing content—images, text, or video that you own, specifically taken down. There are a number of forms available online for submitting DMCA notices to internet hosting companies; there are even forms for asking Google, Yahoo, and Bing to remove content from their search results. While these forms don’t guarantee cooperation, the mere threat of legal action will at least be enough to get a site owner’s attention. if your DMCA notice doesn’t get a response, it might be time to talk to a lawyer.
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