Can You Delete Things From The Internet?

This story is brought to you by Hacker Noon’s weekly sponsor, Abine . For Hacker Noon readers: 25% off their signature products, Blur & DeleteMe .

You want to delete something from the Internet: maybe it’s an article, a picture, a blog post, an account, or a video. It’s not always easy, but it can be done. So, here’s how to delete things from the internet.

We’ve spent years deleting people’s info from data broker websites with our product, DeleteMe , and we’ve learned a lot. Before we get to our 7 deletion tips, let start with some basic rules of the web.

Web Rule 1: Walk before you run. Deletion must be done from the original source before Google will notice.

In this guide, we’ll call the website that’s actually hosting the content you want removed–the original source–the publisher . Blogs, newspapers, forums, Facebook…they’re all publishers.

Let’s say that someone wrote a really unflattering blog post about you and now it’s showing up in Google’s search results whenever someone searches for your name. Naturally, you want it taken down from Google. Here’s the important thing: Google is not the source of that post; it’s merely letting that post be found more easily. The post is actually hosted on the blog, which might be WordPress, Posterous, Tumblr, or another popular blogging site. Google does not have the file, nor can it delete the file.

To remove something from Google’s search results, you have to remove it from the original source first. Once you take down a piece of content, Google and other search engines will naturally filter it out of search results. However, there is a way to speed up that process: see point 2 below.

Web Rule 2: You’ll hit some red lights. In most cases, websites don’t have any duty to remove anything.

Goodbye, data.

Most of the things that people want removed are things they voluntarily posted at an earlier time. Under many websites’ Terms of Use, you lose rights in whatever you post as soon as you post it. That’s why it’s absolutely key that you think before you post, because it could be on the Internet forever .

You also have to have a really good reason to force a website to remove content. Looking bad in a picture or disliking a comment someone made on your Facebook wall isn’t enough. We’ll get into these serious reasons later on in this guide. The good news: even though sites don’t have to take content down, they may do it just to help you out. Asking nicely can go a long way!

Web Rule 3: Keep it up. Persistence pays, so if you hit a wall, go around it.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease” is truer than ever when it comes to takedowns. You’re going to have to speak up, speak often, and keep at it. Eighty percent of whether an item is removed depends on how dedicated you’re willing to be. You can’t take a lack of response for an answer. You’re competing for the limited time of very busy people and companies. Without further ado, here are our 7 tips on how to get something deleted from the web.

1. Find someone, or at least a department, to talk to

To actually remove an item, you’ll have to get in touch with someone who’s in charge of managing the particular website on which it appears. If it’s you and it’s your account or website, even better. Some sites have systems in place for requesting takedowns, but your odds are better if you speak to an actual human being.

Try to find a phone number for a website editor, webmaster, or writer at the publication. In our experience, the best person to talk to is someone who’s tech-savvy enough–and has the authority– to remove content himself. That way they can handle your request right when you ask, not go through a long chain of decision-makers who may forget about you. The department that will take the longest to get back to you? Legal.

Your goal is to talk to an actual human being. We cannot guarantee that human being will be this happy to hear from you, though.

You can usually get a number at the “contact us” link on the very bottom of most websites. If no contact information is listed, you can do a special search to see who registered the site. This is called a “Who Is” search, and you can do it for free on Google. Simply type “whois www.[the site you’re looking up].com” in quotes, and you’ll get a result for the person who registered it. If you wanted to do a Who Is search on us, for example, you’d type in “whois www.abine.com” into the search bar. Who Is searches will provide a name, address, and phone number for an administrative contact at the site. Note that the contact information may be anonymous if the site was registered through a proxy service.

If you can only find a general phone number for the front desk (this often happens with newspapers), tell the receptionist that you’d like to be connected to someone in charge of website content about a takedown request. If you’re dealing with a big company with an automated phone menu, be persistent until you get another person on the line.

2. If you can’t talk, email

If you can’t find a phone number, look for a personal email. When you’re picking out a person to reach out to, follow our tips from point 1 above. Even if you can’t find personal emails, most sites use a standard format for employee email, and you can guess at an email with a bit of work. For example, we use the format “first name at Abine dot com.” This website, Email Format , can help you guess by providing formats for many popular websites.

3. Make your case, and make it well

There’s usually no legal reason to get an item taken down, so you’ll only succeed if you ask respectfully and eloquently. Think of yourself like an attorney: you have to represent yourself and make a compelling argument. If they do remove the item, they’ll be doing it as a favor to you.

You have to make your case.

It’s a good idea to write out your request even if you’re planning on speaking with someone so you’ll have a roadmap to refer to. Stick to the following tips in order:

  • Start by briefly stating who you are and your purpose for contacting them (e.g., “I’d like to talk to you about removing an item from your website”).
  • Thank them for their time, and verify that they are the correct person to speak to about takedown requests. If they’re not, it’s a waste of both of your time to continue. Ask them to put you in touch with the right person, and not just a redirected phone call, but a phone number, name, and email address for that person as well.
  • Provide a concise background about what you want removed and how it ended up online.
  • Here’s the most important part: say why it’s important to you that this content be removed. Humanize yourself and your situation, but try not to be too emotional or dramatic about it, even though it may be sensitive to you. You want them to be able to relate to you, like you, and empathize with you. A few good reasons: the content may be untrue, harmful to your reputation, making it hard for you to get a job, and/or emotionally traumatic.
  • After you’ve presented your reasons, restate that you’d like them to remove it. Then wait. The ball is in their court now; do not speak until they give you an answer.
  • If they say no to a full deletion, offer alternatives. If the publisher has a policy against unpublishing except in extraordinary circumstances, would they consider either (1) blocking the content from being indexed by search by using robots.txt file, (2) removing or anonymizing your name, or (3) even adding a brief edit to include an update to clarify the situation or address whatever your concern is?
  • End by thanking them for their time and consideration regarding your situation. Know that they are gracious to review it, and make sure they feel appreciated. You should also offer to provide any additional information that may be helpful to them.
  • Check written requests for spelling and grammar mistakes. These things matter.
  • If you do speak with someone, make sure that you take note of his or her name and keep an organized record of your communications in case you have to make repeated attempts.

And if one person turns you down, try someone else at the company. Remember: persistence pays.

4. Delete things from Google Search with Google’s URL Removal Tool

You can ask Google to remove outdated search results.

If you ever see a link in Google that needs updating (in other words, you’ve removed or changed content on the publisher’s site, but Google’s search results still reflect the old content), you can use Google’s URL Removal Tool to fix it.

Note that you’ll need a Google account. Just hit the “New removal request” button, paste the link to the site that needs updating, and under “Reason,” select “The page has changed and Google’s cached version is out of date” from the drop-down menu. Then follow the directions on the page and “enter a word that has been entirely removed from the live page but is still present in the cached version.” Finally, submit your request. Google will approve or deny it within about 48 hours. You can also view pending, approved, and denied removal requests .

5. If you can’t delete something bad, bury it with something good

In a perfect world, we’d be able to remove all the unfair, outdated, and negative search results about ourselves. In reality, most content is here to stay except in special circumstances. Remove what you can, but creating your own positive content to suppress the negative search results is a great way to control your image and improve your search results. Note that if you’re looking to disappear from the web, this isn’t the solution for you. You’ll be creating more content about you, but you’ll be tipping the balance from negative to positive.

You can bury negative things in search results.

Create and manage public profiles for yourself

Certain sites consistently appear high in the search results. By simply creating a profile on them with your name and a bit of identifying information, you can suppress negative results. Make sure that you set your privacy settings to be publicly viewed, and only post content that you’re absolutely sure you won’t regret later. Here’s a list of sites to use:

Twitter: http://twitter.com/

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/

MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/

Formspring.me: http://www.formspring.me/

Foursquare: http://foursquare.com/

About.Me: https://about.me/

Google: https://profiles.google.com/

Blogger: http://blogger.com

Tumblr: http://tumblr.com

Photobucket: http://www.photobucket.com/

Quora: http://www.quora.com/

StumbleUpon: http://www.stumbleupon.com/

Reddit: http://www.reddit.com

Digg: http://www.digg.com

Plixi: http://www.plixi.com

Yahoo Pulse: http://pulse.yahoo.com/

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/

You can also use your real name to register on news websites and comment on articles, although these types of posts don’t tend to rank as highly as those on the sites listed above.

Link Amongst your Various Sites

One of the ways that Google determines a site’s rank in search results is by analyzing how many times other sites link to it. You can get your content to rise by linking it to itself. For example, create a twitter account, connect that to your formspring account, connect both of those to your Facebook page, and link to all of them on your Blogger page. Of course, the more you use your accounts and interact with other people, the more likely they are to link to your content, which drives your results even higher.

Take back negative keywords

If a search for your name is generally positive, but including a particular keyword brings up negative or unwanted results, try to reclaim that term. Let’s say that a search for “John Doe” is positive, but “John Doe”+ “State College” brings up negative results. John Doe should start including the phrase “State College” in his positive content creation in order to associate it with his good reputation.

6. Report legal violations to the search engines

If you think that any of the content you want removed is violating any law (copyright infringement is a common one), then visit this link , select “Web Search,” and proceed from there. Generally, Google and other websites will remove content if it falls into any of the following categories:

– copyright or trademark infringement — threats of violence against another person — child pornography — obscenity — child exploitation — spam — impersonation or misuse of another’s identity — court-ordered removal — malware/viruses — confidential information (including social security number, bank account number, and credit card number) — cyberbullying — otherwise illegal material

7. If something is truly defamatory, get a lawyer

Sorry. We tried to avoid having it come to lawyers, but unfortunately there’s a point when you have to call in the legal team.

If the content you want removed is something negative that someone said about you or your business, you usually cannot remove this type of item without legal documentation supporting your claims. Under the current state of internet law, hosting companies and websites are under no legal obligation to remove allegedly defamatory content without a court’s determination that the content is actually untrue and harmful to you.

And just because someone says something you don’t like doesn’t make that statement defamatory. Defamation is a defined legal term with a very specific meaning. It’s also balanced against free speech rights. If you got food poisoning at a restaurant, you have the right to post a bad review of that restaurant on Yelp. The owner may not like it, but you can say it if it’s true, and the public has an interest in knowing about a place that may make them sick. That bad review is not defamatory. However, if you posted that the restaurant owner is a pedophile just to get back at him for spending the night vomiting, that most likely is defamatory.

Defamation requires that four elements be met: (1) there’s a false statement of fact, not opinion; (2) that’s publicly published to at least one other person; (3) if the defamatory matter is of public concern, there’s fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and (4) there must be damage to the talked-about person’s reputation. For celebrities and public figures, there’s an additional requirement that the statement be maliciously untrue–you knew it was false, but you said it with bad and hurtful intentions.

The legal elements of defamation.

It’s frustrating that you need a court order declaring something as defamatory, but without that rule, it’d be impossible for websites and hosting companies to handle thousands of defamation claims. If you look at Blogger’s Terms of Use and Content Policy , for example, you’ll see that they do not list defamation as a violation. Furthermore, Google states that they “do not remove allegedly defamatory content from www.google.com or any other U.S. dot com domains.”

So if the claims (1) are presented as facts and not opinions, (2) are actually false (and you can prove it), and (3) have caused actual, provable damage to your reputation, you may want to speak with a First Amendment attorney, especially one who specializes in Internet defamation.

We hope this information was helpful to you, and best of luck on your quest to delete!

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