Digitally Disappearing

If we are using our computer and we want something to disappear, we simply ‘click delete’, ‘drag it to the trash’, ‘rm -fr *’ and a host of other commands – it’s gone. However, when we work (and play) on the internet, sometimes there is no delete button, sometimes we can’t reset the machine. Just how hard is it to digitally disappear in today’s world of increasingly intertwined systems of data? It’s a question that is often asked, especially in the context of teaching the foolhardy a lesson in humility undeserved fame.

Joe: I googled myself the other day and I found a photo from years ago that somebody took on a night out. I was looking none too good! So embarrassing!

Jack: Well, that’s it now. You’ll never be able to get it off the internet.

No doubt a familiar exchange of words between many a friendship in recent times. Even those who are less complacent about their image occupying digital space and choose to tackle the service providers, find themselves frequently meeting a brick wall. There are many documented cases of Facebook refusing to remove images of people from another’s postings, irrespective of permission not being granted to publish the photo by the unsuspecting subject. Some of these cases are of great distress and some arise from communities that are just downright bizarre. Have you heard about the Facebook group dedicated to images of women eating on London’s underground railway? As somebody who “street shoots” photography on occasion, I know that people often get caught in the crossfire of lens and subject but I think that this case crosses the line with respect to what is art or artistic allowance.

As anyone who has googled themselves or a friend will know, if you’ve ever had a footprint on the internet, Google will find you. As a webmaster in charge of your own website, you can request for Google to remove outdated links (and meta data) from its index (its directory of everything on the web) but as a user of another site or social media platform, you have more or less been powerless to erase your past if it was ever in the public domain. Court orders, etc, exist for extreme cases but more typically, the layperson suffers in silence by way of the anonymity of the larger corporation ironically ensuring that the individual’s name remains very much in the public eye.

Ann: Sure it’s my account, as soon as I delete the thing, isn’t everything gone?

Jane: Did you post things publicly? You’d be surprised just where they are now.

In the early days of social media, before privacy concerns – the kind of privacy concerns that people have about posting their entire life online to a couple of hundred people of whom they actually know about 50 – people typically shared things in the public domain. Tweets were viewed by the world, comments on blogs too, Facebook posts passed on from stranger to stranger without restriction. Viral marketing was born! Conversely, many people felt as though they “could just die” with the embarrassment that ensued. Do you have a Twitter account? Do you tweet updates unprotected? You know that anyone can look at them, anytime they want, without even using Twitter, right? Some spam sites even archive public updates to add to their misleading content in an attempt to attract more traffic. Good luck getting a take down against them for something you shouldn’t have posted!

If you don’t want it on your tombstone, don’t put it on the internet.

Words I live by every day and words of advice I offer anyone who asks how secure is …? Once you post something to the great ether, consider it eternal, your contribution to the discoveries of web archaeologists who are yet to be born.

This piece was prompted by the recent news that Google may be forced to acknowledge take downs from private individuals (i.e. not celebrities) for links it returns in search results that are no longer in date or more likely, no longer desirable. This arises from a case taken in the European Court of Justice by a Spanish man seeking the removal of links, to content, relating to past financial troubles that are now resolved and which he felt were badly reflecting on his current position. This could well be progress for those seeking to erase their digital past but the removal of a link to the problem, still does not remove the problem. Google is only one way (granted, the universally accepted single path) of finding data across the web. There are many other ways of finding things that you might not want to be found.

The act of digitally disappearing in a world of data that is automatically consumed by aggregators, coined for the purpose of developing business models atop the raft of information published by and about us, is an almost impossible aspiration. In our pursuit of knowledge on tap and rapid results for all queries, we have succeeded in creating just that; an interconnected world of data on demand, where anybody can find anything they want. It works brilliantly, efficiently, and relentlessly. Until of course, you no longer want to find something…

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