The Internet makes it so easy to share data that once a bit of information gets planted on a Web server, it's nearly impossible to remove all traces of it. The e-mail, photos, and other data we upload to Web sites will travel far and wide, whether we intend it to or not.
(The dark side of this sharing is shown by the recent Gawker security breach, as reported by CNET's Steven Musil. See below for links to more information on the Gawker data leak.)
When it comes time to remove an account, we can only hope the service will prevent the private information in the account from being recovered by an unauthorized third party. The four biggest Web services--Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Windows Live--let you delete an account with only a few clicks. Unfortunately, deleting an account doesn't necessarily remove the private information associated with that account.
Facebook accounts can be temporarily deactivated, and Google will attempt to recover messages from a deleted Gmail account if not much time has transpired. Yahoo and Windows Live consider data from deleted accounts unrecoverable, although Microsoft points out that some Windows Live personal information may not be easy to remove entirely.
Cancel a Facebook account permanently or temporarily
To delete a Facebook account, click Account > Account Settings and select "deactivate" next to Deactivate Account under the Settings tab. You're then required to provide a reason for why you want to cancel the account, either by selecting one of the eight options listed or offering a reason of your own. You're also given the option to opt out of future e-mails from Facebook.
Each of the reasons Facebook supplies for deleting an account is accompanied by an attempt to convince you to stick with the service. For example, selecting, "I don't feel safe on Facebook" or "I have a privacy concern" opens a text box with a link to information about tweaking the service's privacy settings.
When you choose, "This is temporary. I'll be back," Facebook warns you that to reactivate the account you'll need access to the e-mail account you used to sign in. You're also told that your admin status for groups or events will not be reactivated automatically. To permanently delete a Facebook account you are required to submit a request via the service's Delete My Account page.
Delete a Google/Gmail account
Google doesn't offer the equivalent of Facebook's "I'll be back" option to suspend rather than delete an account, but the service offers to attempt retrieval of messages and other data from a deleted Gmail account if the deletion occurred recently. To remove a Google account, sign in at the Google Accounts page and click the Edit button next to My Products.
You're given the option to delete your Gmail account, the account's Web history, and its interaction with other individual Google services the account uses, or to remove the account completely. Choosing to delete the entire account opens a confirmation page that lets you select individual services to remove and requires that you confirm the deletion and acknowledge that you are responsible for any pending financial charges.
After you re-enter the account password and click the Delete Google Account button, the account will be inaccessible within two business days, although the Gmail Help page on deleting an account notes that it may take up to 60 days for the account information to be deleted from Google's servers. The company also offers to help you recover an account that was deleted a "few weeks" earlier--no promises, though.
Erase a Yahoo account
Deleting a Yahoo account starts by signing into the account and navigating to the Terminating your Yahoo Account page. The page prompts you to ensure that no charges are pending on any Yahoo premium services and indicates that it will take about 90 days for the deactivated account to be deleted. You're also warned that some account information may remain in the Yahoo archive, as explained on the Yahoo Privacy page.
After you re-enter your password and type in the Captcha text, click the Yes, Terminate This Account button to flush it or No, Return to Account Information to retain it. While you have to delete the information in your Yahoo People Search entry separately, any Flickr account associated with the Yahoo ID will be wiped out along with the Yahoo account.
Give a Windows Live account the boot
To remove a Windows Live account, sign into the account, click the down arrow to the right of the account name, and choose Account. On the Account Overview page, select "Close your account" under Other Options near the bottom of the page. The "Close your Windows Live account" page warns you that you must first delete any personal information from Microsoft services or other sites that use the same sign-in ID, because those accounts will not be accessible once your Live ID is deactivated.
The Windows Live account-cancellation page also states that some of the account information will be retained; the page provides links to the Microsoft Online Privacy Notice Highlights page. Unfortunately, that page doesn't have any information about what personal data may be retained after an account is deleted.
The full Microsoft Online Privacy Statement includes a section with instructions and links for accessing your personal information in various Microsoft services. (The privacy statement also has links to pages for opting out of Microsoft's personalized targeted ads and to the Network Advertising Initiative's Consumer Opt-out page.)
For information on deleting other Web accounts, the Delete Your Account site provides instructions for canceling accounts with more than two dozen services, including Twitter, MySpace, Monster, and LinkedIn.
You may be looking for Gawker on that list of deletable accounts in the aftermath of the service's recent security breach. Unfortunately, Gawker is currently blocking attempts to delete its accounts. Elinor Mills provides an FAQ on the Gawker breach in her InSecurity Complex blog, including information on how to determine whether your data is at risk. The post also features a link to the Gawker Check site for securely searching the compromised database for a specific user ID and e-mail address.