How do I block people from finding me and information about me on the internet? I want to erase myself from the internet. How do I stop my name and my information from showing when people google me or search for me on the internet?
This is, sadly, an extremely common question. I say sadly, because the answer is both disappointingly complex, and ultimately unattainable.
The short answer is very, very simple: you don’t.
The longer answer involves understanding how little control you have, what steps you can try, and how effective they may or may not be.
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I want to start with something else: prevention. Prevention is really the only cure, and even then it’s not at all complete.
Assume that everything you put on the internet will remain there forever, and will be viewed in the worst possible light. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that it will be there forever, or that it will be viewed in the worst possible, light. What I’m saying is that that’s the safest way to view how what you say, do and post in public might be used. To the extent that you have control about what goes on the web before it goes up, exercise caution, with those two phrases as your guide: “forever”, and “in the worst possible light”.
Don’t quite feel like posting those party photos now do you?
And that leads to the most common example we hear about all the time: someone losing a job or job offer because they spoke their mind in a public post, or posted unflattering photos of themselves, or otherwise made public information that they ultimately regretted. Information that their employer eventually found that impacted their job.
It happens all the time.
One of the counter arguments is along the lines of “I should be able to post and say and do whatever I want.” Freedom of speech, and all that.
Absolutely. You’re very right. Go ahead. Post and say what you like. In most countries you have the right to say pretty much whatever you like. Just remember that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.
Because chances are you’re not going to get whatever it is removed from the internet.
And even preventing what you do may not be enough. What about other sources of information that might relate to you?
You can’t control what others say or post about you. (Within the legal limits of harassment, libel and slander, of course, and even then within the limits of your own legal or justice system and your resources.)
Have you perhaps been mentioned in a newspaper? Listed in publicly accessible government or organization records? Do you participate in discussion groups that are visible and/or archived publicly?
All of these are ways you can show up online. I’m sure that there are plenty more.
And most all are places from which you probably can’t remove yourself.
But I know you want to try, so let’s see what we can do.
People like to focus on the search engines, yet there’s a fundamental problem: the search engines have nothing to do with it. Yes, you might use one to find information, but that information is not in the search engine itself – it’s in any of a thousand other sites out on the internet. As I’ve discussed before, the only way to truly remove yourself is to ask each and every one of those sites to remove the information that pertains to you.
A common request is how to get Google to remove you. There are two problems:
- They won’t. They’re a search engine, and their “job” is to report what can be found on other sites on the internet. They’re simply showing you what’s out there, and what’s out there is not in their control.
- Google’s not the only game in town. Google’s perhaps the most popular, but there are literally thousands of search engines out there. From Windows Live to Yahoo, to many medium and smaller niche search engines, there are more search engines than you can count. Even if you could get Google to remove you from their results, which you cannot, you’d still be faced with all those other search engines that might also be returning results that show your information out on the internet.
There’s a growing service area called “reputation management”. These services will promise to remove you from the search results. They can’t. If they tell you that they can, they’re wrong. The best that they can hope to accomplish is to push whatever it is you want to hide further down the results list when people use common search terms for you. The information has not been removed. At best it’s simply somewhat harder to find. That may, or may not, be valuable to you.
It’s tempting to think you have control over the information that’s placed on sites and services that you control on the web. You don’t have, control and that shows it is another way that this issue gets so complicated.
You might think that if I wanted to remove something about myself that’s been posted here on Ask Leo! all I need to is exactly that – remove it.
Not good enough.
The “problem” is that there are other sites that take copies of the pages on my site and preserve them as a kind of historical record. Archive.org is a good example, but in fact there could once again be any number of sites archiving or duplicating the information here – many of them illegally I might add. I could certainly remove information here, but I have no control over what these other sites do with the information that they’ve already captured and made publicly accessible.
So what can you do?
- Well, you can use the search engines yourself to see where all the information about you is, and then contact all of those sites (not the search engines) and ask them to remove it. Good luck with that.
- You can use a reputation management service to try and “bury” your information, making it harder, but not impossible to find. If that’s enough for you.
And that’s about it. Once something is on the internet, it’s pretty much there for good.
In fact, it might well be easier to change you: move, change your name, change all of your identifying information, and then make sure that as little of that new you gets on the internet as possible.
But even then, I’ll bet you’ll show up somewhere.