Can You Delete Your Digital Past?

If you want to erase your tracks online, you're not alone. Here's what we did in an attempt to expunge a few bad mentions off the Net forever.

An unsavory connection from your past. An annoying link to your name that's dragging down your career. A spicy quote you tossed off to a reporter that you wish you could take back.

As time goes by, more of us are being tailed by some little thing out there on the Web, an awful bit that emerges when someone Googles our names, a black mark that we'd like to erase before a colleague or a prospective employer sees it.

A whole industry—known online reputation management—has grown up around helping individual clients and corporate clients suppress negative information online by creating more positive and search-engine-friendly postings.

But what if you don't just want something massaged, manipulated or suppressed? What if you want it gone? Is it possible for an ordinary person to get some damaging tidbit entirely erased from the Web?

Computerworld decided to find out. We gave ourselves a week to try to expunge unwanted online mentions, using three real-life examples as test cases:

• A recent college graduate with a distinctive last name would like to get rid of an entry on someone else's long-abandoned online journal. The entry mentions her full name in a rambling tale of drug-induced debauchery and sexual high jinks. It always shows up as the fourth or fifth result in a Google search on her name—a real problem now that the young woman (let's call her WrongedGirl) is applying for jobs.

• A freelance writer is mistakenly identified as a movie critic on Rotten Tomatoes, a popular site that aggregates movie reviews from print, TV and the Web. Although she personally admires Rotten Tomatoes, she worries that her byline juxtaposed next to the word "rotten" in the first few Google search results sets up an unpleasant association in the minds of prospective clients—especially older business people who have no idea what Rotten Tomatoes is.

• In an interview seven years ago, an IT professional gave a quote to Computerworld that included a salty phrase. She recently contacted the editors, asking them to either remove her name from the piece or prevent the article from being found in a search. Her goal: "I don't want any hits at all when my name is searched."

We started by calling a couple of online image management professionals for some free advice.

What not to do

If you're trying to get something erased from the Web, your first instinct might be to pursue legal action. Resist this urge, says Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender Inc., an online reputation management and privacy company in Redwood City, Calif.

Why? The Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives almost total immunity to Web sites, says Fertik. Even if you can establish a legal case, the distinctly nonphysical nature of the Web—where you, your defamer and the company that hosts the offending material can be in different states or countries, or simply be unknown—means that sorting out jurisdictions can turn into a legal quagmire.

Likewise, Fertik adds, another surprise dead end is the place where many people launch their erasure efforts: Google.

If an item doesn't show up in a Google search, it's as good as being truly gone, right?

Wrong. "Removing content from Google or another search engine would still leave the original content that exists on the Web," says a Google spokesman.

The better route, according to the spokesman: "Users that want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page or the Internet hosting companies or ISPs hosting the content to find out their content removal policies."

Strike One: Misbegotten Quote

Computerworld started with three real-life instances in which people wanted material expunged from online sites, but the experts we consulted were optimistic about only one case—the situation in which a young woman's first and last name were included in a salacious online journal entry.

Here's a look at another case:

• IT manager talks salty to a business publication—Computerworld—and later regrets it. On this topic, our experts were divided. Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin says it would be exceedingly rare for any mainstream publication to change the record for any reason. (Computerworld's editors agreed. The quote, with the source's name attached to it, still stands.)

ReputationDefender CEO Michael Fertik sees a little wiggle room, however. True, The New York Times is unlikely to change the record, but some smaller outlets might, he says.

"I don't know if I buy the journalistic integrity argument—though I respect it. A lot of small newspapers will fold right away as soon as you threaten them," he says.

That said, he notes that ReputationDefender does not handle requests to expunge material from mainstream media.

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