How to Delete Things From the Internet: 7 Tips for Doing the Impossible

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Ever want to delete things from the Internet?  Maybe it’s an article, a picture, a blog post, an account, or a video.  It’s not always so easy, but it can be done.

We’ve spent years deleting people’s information, processing more than 10 Million consumer opt-outs from data broker websites with DeleteMe, and we’ve learned a lot.  Before getting to our 7 deletion tips, let’s lay out some basic rules for removing things from the internet.

Web Rule #1: 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, even Facebook, are all publishers.

Let’s say that someone wrote a really unflattering blog post about you, and it’s showing up in the search results whenever somebody Googles your name.  Of course, you want this taken down from Google.  But, here’s the thing: Google is not the source of that post, it’s just letting the post be found more easily.  The post is actually on the blog, which might be WordPress, Tumblr, or some other blogging site.  Google does not have the file, and so it cannot delete the file.

Web Rule #2: In most cases, websites don’t have any duty to remove anything.

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

You also need to have a really good reason to force a website to remove content, for example, if it is severely affecting your reputation, making it difficult to find a job or housing.  Looking bad in a picture or disliking a comment that somebody made on your Facebook post isn’t enough.  We’ll get into the serious reasons later in the guide.  The good news is, even though sites don’t have to take down content, they might do it to help you out if you ask nicely.

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

The old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” holds true when it comes to taking something down from the internet.  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.

So, finally, here are our 7 tips to getting things deleted from the web!

1. Find a real person to talk to.

To get something removed from a particular website, you’ll have to get in touch with a person who’s in charge of managing that site.  If it’s your own website, even better.  Some sites have systems in place for requesting takedowns, but your chances are better if you can speak to an actual human being.

Try to find the 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 themselves.  That way, they can handle your request right when you ask, rather than going through a long chain of decision-makers who may forget about you.  Note: Avoid the legal department, they will likely take the longest to get back to you.

2. If you can’t talk to someone, email them.

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 make an educated guess at the email with a bit of work.  This website, Email Format, can help you guess by providing formats for many popular websites.

3. Represent yourself well.

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

It’s a good idea to write out your request, even if you’re planning on speaking someone, just so you’ll have a roadmap to refer to.  Here’s an idea of what to say:

  1. 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”).
  2. Thank them for their time, and verify that they are the right person to speak to about getting the content removed.  If they’re not that person, then it’s a waste of both of your time to continue.  Ask them to put them in touch with the right person–not just redirect the call, but a phone number, name, and email address.
  3. Provide a concise background about what you’d like removed and how it got online.
  4. This is the most important part: say why it’s important that this content is removed.  Humanize yourself and the situation, but try not to be too emotional or dramatic about it.  You want them to be able to related to you, like you, and empathize with you.  A few good reasons might be that the content is false, harmful to your reputation, making it difficult for you to find a job, and/or emotionally traumatic.
  5. After you’ve presented your reasons, restate that you’d like them to remove it.  Then wait.  It’s up to them now; do not speak until they give you an answer.
  6. If they say no to a full deletion, offer alternatives.  If the publisher has a policy against unpublishing, ask if they would consider blocking the content from being indexed using a robot.txt file, removing or anonymizing your name, or adding a brief edit to include an update to clarify the situation or address whatever your concern is?
  7. End by thanking them for their time and consideration in the 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 could help them.
  8. Check written requests for grammar and spelling mistakes!
  9. 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 take repeated attempts.

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

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

If you ever see a link in Google that needs updating (for example, if 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.

You’ll need a Google account to do this.  Just hit the ‘New removal request’ button, paste the link to the site that needs updating, and select ‘The page has changed’ and Google’s cached version is out of date’ as the Reason.  Next, 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 48 hours.  You can also view pending, approved, and denied removal requests.

If you can’t delete negative content, bury it with positive content.

In a perfect world, we’d be successful in removing all of the unfair, outdated, and negative search results about ourselves.  In reality, most content will stay online except for special circumstances.  Remove what you can, but creating your own positive content to suppress or push down negative search results is a great way to control your image and improve your Google results.  As Don Draper says,  “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.”

via GIPHY

Note that if you’re looking to disappear from the web, this is not the solution for you.  Instead, you’ll be creating more content about you, allowing you to tip the balance from negative to positive.

Certain sites consistently appear at the top of Google search results.  By just creating a profile with your name and a bit of identifying information, you can push down negative results.  Make sure your privacy settings are set to be publicly viewed, and only post content that you’re absolutely sure you won’t regret in the future.  Here is a list of sites to use:

Link amongst your various sites

One of the ways that Google decides a site’s rank in search results is by seeing how many times other sites link to it.  You can get your content to rise by linking to itself, e.g. create a Twitter account, connect that to your Facebook page, connect both to your Photobucket, and link to them all in 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 will drive your results even higher.

Take back negative keywords

If a generic search for your name is generally positive, but including a particular keyword brings up negative or unwanted results, you can create content to reclaim that term.  For example, if a search for “Sarah Downey” is positive, but a search for “Sarah Downey State College” brings up negative results, creating content including the phrase “Sarah Downey State College” can help push down those negative results.

Report legal violations to the search engines.

If you think that any of the content that you want removed is violating a law (a common one is copyright infringement), then visit Google’s Legal Support, select ‘Web Search’, and proceed from there.  Google and other sites will usually remove content if it calls 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 a social security number, bank account number, or credit card number)
  • Cyberbullying
  • Otherwise illegal material

If something is truly defamatory, get a lawyer.

Sorry.  We tried to avoid getting the legal team involved, but unfortunately you might get to that point.

If the content you want removed is something negative that someone said about you or your business, you usually cannot get it removed without some kind of legal documentation to support your claims.  Under current internet laws, 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 something is negative doesn’t mean it’s defamatory.  Defamation has a specific legal meaning, and is balanced against free speech rights.  There are four elements to defamation: 1) there’s a false statement of fact, not opinion; 2) it’s publicly published to at least one other person, and 3) if the defamatory matter is of public concern, then the publisher is at  least at fault of negligence; and 4) there must be damage to the talked-about person’s reputation.  For celebrities and public figures, there is an additional requirement that the statement is maliciously untrue- the person knew it was false and said the statement with hurtful intentions.

So, for example, if you got food poisoning at a restaurant, you have the right to post a negative review on Yelp.  The owner may not like it, but if it’s true, then the public has an interest in knowing that they may get sick at that restaurant.  If you posted that the owner is a thief just to get back at him for your food poisoning, that is most likely defamatory.

It may be frustrating that you need a court order to declare something as defamatory, but without that rule, it would be impossible for websites and hosting companies to handle thousands of defamation claims.  For example, Blogger’s Terms of Use and Content Policy does not list defamation as a violation.  Google similarly states that they “do not remove allegedly defamatory content from www.google.com or any other US dot com domains.”

So, if the claims are 1) presented as fact rather than opinion, 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 we wish you luck in deleting!

About Abine

Abine, Inc. is The Online Privacy Company.  Founded in 2009 by MIT engineers and financial experts, Abine’s mission is to provide easy-to-use online privacy tools and services to everybody who wants them.  Abine’s tools are built for consumers to help them control the personal information companies, third parties, and other people see about them online.

DeleteMe by Abine is a hands-free subscription service that removes personal information from public online databases, data brokers, and people search websites.

Blur by Abine is the only password manager and digital wallet that also blocks trackers, and helps users remain private online by providing ‘Masked’ information whenever companies are asking for personal information.

Abine’s solutions have been trusted by over 25 million people world.

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