The Internet companies that power your online life know that data equals money, and they're becoming bolder about using that data to track you. If they get their way, your every online step would be not only irrevocable, but traceable back to you. Fortunately, there are some positive steps you can take to reclaim your online history for yourself.
The online privacy software company Abine, which makes Do Not Track Plus, also offers a service called DeleteMe, which removes your data from numerous tracking sites and keeps it from coming back. In an unusual gesture, though, they've made public how to do for yourself everything that DeleteMe does. Here's my take on their advice.
Be warned, though. The following are not easy instructions, and it's not because they're technically complex. They require a tenacity and wherewithal that is likely to either exhaust you, drive you borderline bonkers, or both. (And no, I haven't followed the instructions to remove myself because it's essential to my job that I can be found by strangers.)
Step 1: Prepare yourself: You're going to have to be polite. These instructions require patience for the antics of others and determination to get the job done. It's not a bad idea to get something inanimate to take your frustrations out on, because often getting your data successfully removed or changed will require the good faith of the person you're dealing with. Things are not likely to go your way the first time around.
Step 2: Aggressively track sites that aggressively track you. This is where the DeleteMe service comes in. They currently charge you $99 to un-track you from the tracking data clearinghouses, which in turn sell your data to others entities. You can follow Abine's list of services and do the deed yourself, and that means writing many e-mails, sending numerous faxes, and placing enough phone calls to make you wish for a time machine so you can go back to the 19th century to do violence unto Alexander Graham Bell.
One thing that isn't clear from Abine's list is that most of these data aggregators will re-add you within a few months, so I recommend at least bi-annual checks to see if they've sucked up your data again. Be tenacious, be polite, and if this is important to you, stick with it until you get what you want.
If you're concerned about privacy and people making connections between your birthday, your address, and your Social Security number, you owe it to yourself to perform at least one Web search for your name and see what comes up. You might be unpleasantly surprised.
Step 3: To protect your reputation, removal must be done from the source. To get Google, Bing, and other search engines to notice a change in information as it is presented on the Web, the original site hosting that information must change. It doesn't matter which site is the source. It could be Facebook, or a local blog, or a gaming forum. If it's showing up in search results, it has little to do with the search engine and everything to do with the site of origin. Once that site has changed, then you'll see a change in the search results.
Getting something removed from a site is not a scientific process, even though you must be methodical about it. Ask politely, and as I noted above, you're likely to have to ask more than once and using more than one way to communicate. You likely will have to be a rake at the gates of Hell, but one that uses words like "please" and "thank you".
Look for the name of a writer, or Web site manager, and if no contact information is listed, do a WhoIs search by typing "whois www.site-name.com". Be sure to include the quotes. That will tell you who registered the site, which is a good place to start on smaller Web sites. Look for phone numbers, e-mail, and fax numbers, and follow up your initial communication.
Once you have a name, even if you can't find a phone number or e-mail, you can probably take an educated stab at one. Use a site like E-mail Format to help you out. And in your e-mail, be sure to explain clearly, concisely, and logically why your request ought to be honored.
A willingness to compromise can get you better results, too. If, for example, your initial request to fully remove your name gets refused, see if asking to have your identity anonymized will work. And if one person at the site you've contacted keeps stalling you, see if there's another you can contact instead.
Step 4: Get Google to hustle on search engine changes. If you've been successful in changing a site, but Google is still showing the older version, you can use Google's URL Removal Tool to accelerate the process. Note that this will require a Google account, and that if you get Google to change, you're going to have to submit requests to other major search engines like Bing separately.
Step 5: Paint over the bad with good. In cases where you can't get the site to remove the content that's negatively affecting your reputation, you can create new, fresh, positive content to counteract it. The idea is that the Positive You will bury the Negative You. Rick Santorum is a great example of how this can work in reverse, and no, I'm not going to link to it for you.
You can also use social-networking sites to bury bad news. From About.Me to Flickr to Twitter, social networks tend to rank highly in search results. By creating and maintaining accounts that use your real name, you can elevate the social networking results for your name and, ideally, drop the results you want to bury onto the second page of results. Since studies show that second-page results are viewed significantly less often than first-page, this could be a successful burying strategy.
However, a key component of this is linking the networks, so be prepared to do far more social networking than you had been.
Step 6: Go (politely) nuclear. Get a lawyer. If you suspect something is actually defamatory, seek out legal advice. Gather your evidence, be polite and firm, and seek out someone who can guide you through the thorny legal thicket. This will also depend on your country -- England has much broader defamation and libel laws than the United States does -- and your budget.
My colleague Declan McCullagh noted a potential complication in hiring a lawyer: SLAPP laws. Although they vary from state to state, they all basically aim to prevent unsubstantiated legal threats. If you threaten someone, that person can turn around and sue you for attorneys fees and damages.
The bottom line: There is no foolproof method for changing how you're presented on the Internet, whether looking at purely personally-identifiable data or the much more subjective presentation of your personal reputation. However, if these are concerns of yours, you're not alone out there, and these six steps will give you concrete actions you can take to reclaim your identity and repair how others see you.