If you’ve considered paring back your social media use, you are not alone. A 2020 survey found that nearly half of adults in the UK were thinking of quitting Facebook. But to truly disappear online is harder. I asked Alicia Mendonça-Richards, a solicitor with expertise in online reputation management, if we can ever delete ourselves completely.
I told my mum I wanted to delete my accounts and she said, “What have you done?” It’s not true that only the crooked may need to disappear, right?
Right – you could just be somebody who doesn’t want all their personal information online. But there are also examples where there’s false or very private information online, such as with revenge porn.
And that is on the up. I worry that, if police are overwhelmed and it’s too expensive to hire lawyers, revenge porn will become the new normal.
I wouldn’t say you always need a lawyer. Many porn sites have a simple process to take down non-consensual content. And there’s a national revenge porn helpline.
But would it be possible to disappear completely?
It would be difficult unless you’ve been extremely careful – no social media, no use of online public records such as the electoral register.
What about cookies and advertising data? They used that to track someone down in the Netflix drama Clickbait.
That’s different. Many apps sell personal data but, in the UK, it’s usually anonymised. It may be hard to delete yourself completely, but if there is private, false or out-of-date information about you out there, there’ll be a legal avenue for removal.
Note to self: Netflix is not real life. You’re talking about the right to be forgotten: legislation that gives people the right to ask search engines to remove content about them. I often see “some links have been removed” at the end of Google results and wonder who had what removed.
Actually, that’s just something Google puts at the bottom of all search results.
I see! Can you give me an example of when Google might say no?
There was a case in 2018 where two people sued Google for failing to remove information about their spent criminal convictions. Google argued people had a right to know. The judge disagreed for one of the claimants, because their conviction was no longer relevant to their life.
Different from Axl Rose’s 2016 case to stop Google listing a fat picture of him. Maybe that’s why high-profile people aren’t doing it more?
The US doesn’t have an equivalent law. There was a case where it was decided that Google did not have to block global search results, so something removed from Google UK could be found on Google.com. Ultimately, the best thing to do is be careful online. If you are not sure what’s out there, there are companies that can map your entire online presence for you.
I just had a full-body cringe imagining all my terrible old haircuts …
Well, you could probably argue that the information is outdated, and attempt to get it removed under the right to be forgotten.
They should be forgotten! I have served my sentence for crimes against fashion. One last thing – if someone did ask Google to forget them, it’s a human being dealing with it, right? Not some dystopian algorithm?
I’m afraid that’s for Google to answer.