You may have forgotten about Friendster, the once-booming social networking site that faded as American Web users flocked to MySpace and Facebook. But Friendster may not have forgotten about you.
It still remembers, for instance, that John Smith from Salisbury, Md., enjoys hobbies including "comic books" and "copulation." And any Google user can read a glowing testimonial written to Brooklynite Sam Brown, describing his habit of walking around his apartment drunk and naked, as well as his talent for using a certain part of his anatomy as a puppet.
In fact, Friendster is a ghost town of detailed personal information: The site received only 2.4 million unique visitors in the U.S. in January, but has more than 10 million American profiles, many of which publicly display information that users would probably prefer to keep private.
Luckily, deleting your old Friendster profile takes just seconds. A subtly placed link on the bottom right corner of the "Account Settings" page will permanently delete all information stored on your page.
While you're at it, why not delete your old blog, that embarrassing attempt at literary wit that still lingers online? And perhaps it would be best to rid yourself of the Flickr account with those incriminating photos from last weekend? In fact, why not delete every reference to yourself online--simply disappear from the Web and restart your digital reputation afresh?
It's not easy, says Michael Fertik. But plenty of Web users would like to try.
Fertik's business, a start-up called ReputationDefender, based in Louisville, Ky., advertises that it lets users control their Web identity: For $30, the service will work to remove any content a subscriber chooses, using tactics that start with polite requests to the content's publisher and occasionally escalate to legal threats.
Most of Fertik's 6,000 or so customers only want a limited amount of material removed--a couple of embarrassing or defamatory blog posts, for instance. But a few, he says, want all online references about themselves to evaporate. "They want to be what they call 'Web dead,' " he says.
For those customers, many of whom have been stalked or threatened in the real world, Fertik admits that "Web death" is often impossible--references in major newspapers or political contribution data collected by the government, for instance, are practically indelible. More reasonable is trying to manage your online identity, say by removing a few unpleasant references or hiding them.
One ReputationDefender service creates innocuous content about customers, then tweaks those comments so that they float to the top of Google search results, where they hide offensive material. (See "Google-Proof PR?")
But for people who have just a few online references on community Web sites--usually older customers--it's sometimes possible to create a clean slate. "If you're 60 and above, you might be able to become 'Web dead' because you've never been 'Web alive,' " Fertik says.
Many younger users, on the other hand, have left a vivid record of their lives online by posting to user-generated content sites and social networks. And some of the more privacy conscious of those users are starting to clean up that digital trail.
More than 13,000 Facebook users, for instance, have joined a group on the site called "How to permanently delete your Facebook account." The majority of the group's members simply want to erase pages with embarrassing details when they apply for a job, says the group's Swedish founder, Magnus Wallin. Others don't like the idea of leaving personal details sitting on the Web for years to come. A few, he says, want to delete all online traces of themselves to hide from the C.I.A. or other imagined pursuers.
Thanks in part to the demands of Wallin's group, Facebook has made disappearing easier. Until recently, users had to painstakingly remove every message they had left on the site and then "deactivate" their account--an option that still left their personal information stored on Facebook's servers, though not publicly visible. Now users can choose to leave the site temporarily with the deactivation option or to contact the site's administrators and request that their records are permanently erased from the site.
But when it comes to content that's not created by the user himself or herself, completely disappearing online often runs into legal barriers, cautions Daniel Solove, a professor at Washington University and author of The Future of Reputation, a book about online identity management. Because first amendment law tends to protect free speech above privacy in the U.S., an individual can't easily demand that someone else pull down what they wrote, unless the comments are either false or overtly offensive, he says. That means if a blogger or mainstream media outlet mentions you on the Web, Google will find the page for years to come.
"Antiquated notions of invasions of privacy and the overprotection of free speech make removing content a real uphill battle in this country," says Solove.
The only real solution, argues a hacker and security researcher who calls himself "Dead Addict," is to not reveal your personal information in the first place. Dead Addict, who plans to give a talk on Web privacy at the technology conference Notacon in April, has used a workaround common to hackers avoiding the problems of online identity: To keep his controversial opinions and cyber-misdemeanors separate from his real world identity, Dead Addict has used a pseudonym for the last 15 years.
Search for Dead Addict's real name, which he declines to reveal, and he says you'll find a digital non-person: Other than a single forum comment he wrote some 13 years ago, the name offers no results. That anonymity comes from careful attention: Dead Addict has never blogged or created a social networking profile with his real name. Even his business cards carry only his first name and middle initial. "Fifteen years of keeping distinct identities takes a lot of work," he says.
But for those who haven't spent decades hiding from the Web, is it still possible to pull off the same disappearing act?
"If you already have a history online and suddenly start caring about privacy, you're in a very tough spot," he says. "Basically, there's no easy answer."
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