Break Up With the Internet (is it possible?)

Category: Privacy

There's a country song titled “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s”, and it sparked a thought. Back in 1993, before the Netscape browser opened up the World-Wide Web for millions, and your mailbox was cluttered with AOL discs, it was pretty easy to “break up” with the Internet if you wanted to do so. Just unplugging the telephone wire from your 56K modem would do the trick for most people. Alas, it’s not that easy now. Here's what you would have to do in order to disappear from the online world...

Can I Remove Myself From The Internet?

As the saying goes, "The Internet never forgets," but can you at least give it amnesia? For various reasons, some people want to become invisible on the Web. Is there a secret button to press, or a magical device to plug into your computer, to wipe every trace of you from the entire Internet?

Every so often, I hear someone boasting that they are "invisible" or "completely anonymous" on the Internet. And I chuckle. So I do a few Google searches and easily turn up their home address, phone number, employer, names of spouses and children, their hobbies, and even the make, model and color of their car. In one case, I found all that, plus a photo of a guy sitting on his front porch; he had claimed that there was no trace of him online. (Imagine his shock when I sent him that photo!)

There are some very good reasons for wanting to delete yourself from the Internet, or at least remove some portions of your online footprint. This Scientific American article tells the story of a young man who sent a video to a potential employer. That video was leaked online, went viral, and it became a huge source of embarrassment. I'm sure you can imagine other scenarios where something was shared online (with or without permission) and the person affected just wanted to disappear.

Can you become invisible online?

Ghyslain Raza was a shy 15-year-old when he recorded a video of himself imitating Darth Maul with a lightsaber. Classmates discovered the tape in the school's AV studio, and posted it online without Raza's knowledge or consent. Ghyslain Raza became the Star Wars Kid, he was mercilessly mocked, and it pretty much ruined his life for years. Fortunately, Raza was able to shake this "digital shadow". He earned a degree in law and encourages young people not to be defined by the online identity they or others may have created.

I'm glad that my youthful indiscretions are not forever recorded online. I lost a scholarship in high school because of something stupid and embarrassing I did on the school computer. If that had been publicly accessible knowledge, I might have been denied entrance to my college of choice, or lost the opportunity for a job at IBM. Young people today think nothing of documenting every detail of their lives online, until one of those details comes back to bite them.

MIT Technology Review's article Why An Internet That Never Forgets Is Especially Bad For Young People makes the point that "Until the end of the 20th century, most young people could take one thing for granted: their embarrassing behavior would eventually be forgotten... Even if the faux pas were documented in a photograph, the likelihood of its being reproduced and widely circulated for years was minimal... Not anymore." The article gives several examples, including the issue of facial recognition being used in ways one never imagined.

Internet Amnesia?

Others just want to protect their privacy. The truth is, it’s practically impossible to erase every trace of yourself from the Internet. Just look at what you would have to do (and I’ve probably forgotten a few things).

Close all of your social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Flickr, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Skype, Youtube, Tumblr, and who knows what else? Here's a list of almost 200 social media sites. Your zombie MySpace page may still be public. (And just for good measure, you might want to check this list of several dozen defunct social media sites.)

Just finding the “delete my account” button is a deliberately difficult process. Social networks (and especially paid membership sites) don’t want you to leave, and they are under no obligation to help you. Many have human or software “retention agents” who will argue with you (if you let them) rather than let you get to that “delete my account” button. But services like Just Delete Account provide the necessary directions for deleting accounts on many social networks and websites.

Facebook gives you the option to permanently delete your account, but says that it may take up to 90 days from the beginning of the deletion process to delete all the things you've posted. Before doing so, you may want to download your Facebook data first. You also have the option to “deactivate” your account. This essentially means hiding (but not deleting) your profile and all your posts, pictures, videos, etc., where the general public can’t see them. A deactivated account can be reactivated if desired.

You also have the option to delete your Google account. Just be aware that you may be using a variety of Google services (Gmail, Drive, Youtube, Calendar, Play Store, etc.) Take time to read the explanations on that page and choose carefully what you wish to delete. You may want to download emails, pictures, videos, documents, and other things from Google before deleting your account. There are some other considerations that I discuss in Here’s What Google Knows About You (and how you can delete it).

After the social networks, there's still a lot of work to do. You may have accounts on shopping sites (Amazon, eBay, Walmart, etc.), banking and financial sites, auctions, dating, gaming, newspaper, job search sites, etc. You’ll need to delete blog posts you’ve written, comments you made in forums, items posted for sale online, letters to the editor, and so on.

Once your accounts are closed, you’ll need to find and eliminate other traces of yourself online. Ironically, Google is your friend here, enabling you to find mentions of your name (and previous names), and even photos of yourself. Drop images of yourself into Google Image Search and see if you come up with any matches. It’s not facial recognition, but it’s the best we have.

But wait, there's more... Your phone number and home address are likely listed in dozens of online phone directories. (which also operates and is one of the most popular, and they do offer a link to remove your listing. But there are many others. You'll have to hit every one of these online telephone directories to see if they also have "remove me" options.

A few sites that can help you ferret out your personal information online are Fast People Search and PeekYou. If you find traces of yourself online that you want removed, you will have to persuade the owners of the sites hosting those traces to cooperate. Most website owners will have little interest in finding and deleting your information, so that could prove to be a very slow, tedious process. Be polite and persistent. If that doesn’t work, consider having a lawyer send a takedown letter.

And what about all the emails you've sent? It's not so hard to delete your own email account. But how likely are you to persuade all your contacts to rummage through their emails and delete anything from you? Likely, not likely. Oh, and then there are all your text messages floating around in the cloud. Aside from being personally identifying, they can also be embarrassing or incriminating. (See Text Messages Increasingly Used As Divorce Evidence.)

No Delete Button For the Internet

The Internet Law Centre is in the United Kingdom, but the Internet has no borders. Solicitor Yair Cohen founded the firm to defend individuals’ rights on the Internet, and one of his services is helping people disappear from the Internet. Some of his clients include former p*rn stars who want to turn over a new career. Cases like that can involve the removal of tens of thousands of images and videos, one at a time.

Cohen says, “Some images can be removed on copyright grounds, some can be removed on privacy grounds, some could be removed on harassment. Some projects take eight months to a year. We have to be very stubborn.” So will you, if you want to completely erase yourself from the Internet? Do you have a year to devote to that project?

A few countries have enshrined the right to be forgotten into law, as a way for individuals to request that personal information, videos, or photographs be deleted from search engine databases. In practice, the effect is limited, though. Although the content is no longer discoverable by search engines, it remains online. And the removal requests are limited by jurisdiction.

Reputation management services such as Reputation Defender help individuals, job seekers, and businesses remove or suppress incorrect, embarrassing, malicious, or outdated search results. In most cases, they do this by pushing out new positive content to bury the bad. And it's expensive -- with costs ranging from USD $3,000 to $10,000.

Even if you could delete yourself from the public spaces on the Internet, you would still be in an unknown number of databases maintained by motor vehicle departments, insurers, police, the FBI, the NSA, credit reporting agencies, data brokers, hospitals and doctors, public libraries, newspapers, local government offices, political parties, charities, and so on. Some of that data is "personal" but not necessarily private, and can be found by determined searchers.

And then there's the dark web, with vast troves of personal data being bought and sold. Most of this information (which may include your name, address, birth date, phone, email, passwords, social security number, driver's license and credit card data) is obtained from massive data breaches that happen with alarming frequency.

Bottom line, it's probably a fools's errand to try to scrub yourself from the Internet, even if you have the time and motivation. Have you tried to delete yourself from the online world? If so, are there any other tools you found helpful? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

Ask Your Computer or Internet Question

  (Enter your question in the box above.)

It's Guaranteed to Make You Smarter...

AskBob Updates: Boost your Internet IQ & solve computer problems.
Get your FREE Subscription!


Check out other articles in this category:

Link to this article from your site or blog. Just copy and paste from this box:

This article was posted by on 3 Jul 2023

For Fun: Buy Bob a Snickers.

Prev Article:
[HOWTO] Upgrade Your Old, Slow Computer (and when you shouldn't)

The Top Twenty
Next Article:
[RECOMMENDED] Seven Free Software Programs

Most recent comments on "Break Up With the Internet (is it possible?)"

Posted by:

Bob K
03 Jul 2023

Lets not forget the WayBack machine. Not sure how you would be able to get content off that.

Posted by:

03 Jul 2023

gee, amazing lists, who knew that there is/was that many, but no mention of all the dating sites! what about email accounts? I'm sure that there are many more that I haven't thought about, ahh! another, .school alumni clubs

Posted by:

03 Jul 2023

Add in your Windows (Microsoft account) or Apple account. And for sure, just about everyone is known at the NSA. It's what they do.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
04 Jul 2023

My 'online' activity goes back to the days of the 9600 baud modems (precursors to 56K), the first devices I knew about for dial-up connections to bulletin board services (before the Internet), and progresses through time to today where I have ATT's Fiber-500 Internet service, and a Wi-Fi-6 connection. That's a very long footprint to erase (nearly a quarter century), and for what? As far as I know, nothing I've done online or off has had any real impact on my reputation. As far as I'm concerned, if I've done anything to be ashamed of/embarrassed about, whats done is done and I can't change/undo my past, so I may as well man up, own up, and take responsibility for my past actions/behavior, good or otherwise.

As far as I'm concerned, being on the Internet is (and always has been) the same as being out in public. We can have absolutely no expectation of privacy there and should all act accordingly. I wouldn't go out on my front porch naked, so why would I take a naked picture of myself and send it via email (or other media/social media) to anyone? Essentially, if I wouldn't do something in public, I won't do it on the Internet - period. This is a lesson everyone needs to learn, and one parents should teach their children - "If you wouldn't do it in public, don't do it on the Internet!". If we all follow this fundamental rule, we won't have anything we need to 'erase'.

As far as my personal info being on the Internet, I'm choosy about which websites I sign up for and how much information I give out, but for the most part most of what I've found 'out there' won't hurt me. I take the attitude that these websites need me more than I need them. I take security seriously and I don't sign up for any website that doesn't support 2FA protection in one form or another. I only provide the information a site requires, and if I can't see a valid reason for some piece of information being required (phone number, home address, etc.) I don't sign up.

I hope this helps others,

Ernie (Oldster)

Posted by:

wild bill
04 Jul 2023

My reference says that in 1993 modem speeds were 14.4Kb. 56Kb were 1998. Just pickin' a nit.

Posted by:

Mark Siepak
04 Jul 2023

I am with Ernie, the only way I could 'start fresh' would be to stage my death and assume a new identity!

Posted by:

04 Jul 2023

Dont forget about all the info China and Russia have on you also...!

Post your Comments, Questions or Suggestions

*     *     (* = Required field)

    (Your email address will not be published)
(you may use HTML tags for style)

YES... spelling, punctuation, grammar and proper use of UPPER/lower case are important! Comments of a political nature are discouraged. Please limit your remarks to 3-4 paragraphs. If you want to see your comment posted, pay attention to these items.

All comments are reviewed, and may be edited or removed at the discretion of the moderator.

NOTE: Please, post comments on this article ONLY.
If you want to ask a question click here.

Free Tech Support -- Ask Bob Rankin
Subscribe to AskBobRankin Updates: Free Newsletter

Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved
About Us     Privacy Policy     RSS/XML

Article information: AskBobRankin -- Break Up With the Internet (is it possible?) (Posted: 3 Jul 2023)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved