While doing my typical morning surf through Twitter one day this week I came across an interesting topic. It seems that a MySpace-like social media site that started sometime last year is gaining in popularity. Like MySpace, part of the site’s attractiveness is the ability to insert your own HTML code, apply themes, and give your profile a unique look. The name of the site is SpaceHey.com and yes, I’ve already created a bare-bones profile that looks horrid because the last thing I have time to mess with is yet another social media site.
I know I’m not alone in having an account on just about every social media site available. I have, so far, managed to avoid TikTok, because I’m not 14, but I have a presence just about everywhere else. Why? Do I really have some psychological narcissism that pushes me to connect with people on all these platforms? Maybe, but the more likely answer is that we want to be there, wherever there is, when something finally replaces Facebook. We all know it’s coming. The nature of social media demands a limited shelf life for any online software. But we’ve also seen some spectacular failures as well. Remember Google+? With all its parent company’s money and marketing power, one might have thought the site was destined for greatness. Certainly, the Google+ team was convinced they were going to take over the world. That didn’t happen, though, and we’ve watched as plenty of other sites popped up only to never gain enough users and cross-platform hype to make the cut.
Assuming that you, like me, have a deep digital connection is probably a safe direction for me to travel, given that you almost certainly wouldn’t be listening or reading this right now if you didn’t have an online presence of some kind. We talked last week about your personal Terms of Service, and how you need to develop a contract that protects you and sets expectations both online and in real life. The heavy-touted metaverse’s encroachment seems inevitable at this point, despite there being some misgivings as to what the dangers might be. Is living more of our lives online and in digital spaces a good thing, or do we risk surrendering every aspect of our humanity?
For a growing number of people, the better option is to opt-out of all of it, social media, gaming, avatars, websites, everything. This digital environment that has developed over the past 30 years has taken a toll, mentally, emotionally, and physically, across every aspect of our lives. And while there have been some good things that come of this digital world, such as food delivery during a pandemic, or being able to talk to your doctor online, there are a lot of negatives as well. Every day there’s another story about personal data breaches affecting millions of people. Ransomware attacks have taken down some of the biggest corporations on the planet. Hateful attitudes, unchecked misinformation, and lies, trolls challenging and mocking everything you say, all adds up to a situation where none of us can say we’re all that happy with what we’re experiencing online.
Should we abandon everything that’s good and eliminate our digital presence completely? Has the amount of bad reached a place where an objective cost/benefit analysis shows us in moral debt? Is the only reasonable alternative to leave everything and cut the cord completely? Those are all good questions, but before we start yanking power cords out of wall sockets, let’s take a moment to consider all the effort necessary to really eliminate your online presence.
Removing What Is Removable
What one needs to understand at the outset of any conversation about removing yourself from the Internet, is that it’s not 100% possible. Ever. No matter who you are or what you do. Part of the basic construction of the web is endlessly redundant servers that store billions of terabytes of information for eventual reference by digital paleontologists of the future. While your information can be removed to a point that it is not accessible by the average person or corporation, there’s never a point at which all of it is gone forever. Just accept that now and everything gets a lot easier.
We also need to be aware that the rules are slightly different for people under the age of 18. For example, Google makes the process of removing images significantly easier for minors than it is for adults. Most social media companies have similar rules. Because kids and teens are protected by numerous laws against bullying and the distribution of their images, the removal of their information has to be easy. If you’re a parent and are concerned about your child’s data on any website or social media platform, just check and see what is required. You can take care of most sites from your phone.
For the rest of us though, if we’re 100% committed to removing ourselves from the internet and all its connected pieces, we need to be ready to invest significant amounts of time. This isn’t easy. Companies want your data because it represents a significant portion of their revenue in this digital economy. Without your data, their presence on the internet and their related internet-based services would cost them too much to continue.
First, make a list of every online account you have. If you’re like me, this may prove difficult because we’ve signed up for and forgotten a number of websites. By some estimates, the average person has over 300 online accounts. If you’re having trouble finding everything, there’s an article on Medium to help, titled, How To Find Those Old Accounts You Don’t Remember. The article lists a number of resources for finding those accounts and, if necessary, getting back in long enough to delete them.
JustDelete.me is where you want to go when you have that list of accounts. This is a site that has already scorned the internet to find how to delete your account from everything. They also note how difficult deleting your information is on the web so that you can manage your time effectively. For example, if you still have some random AOL account floating around out there, deleting that is fairly easy. Adobe or Amazon accounts are difficult, though, and there are some places, such as Barnes & Noble, that are considered impossible. If you have over 100 accounts to delete, be sure that this is not something achievable over the course of an afternoon. In many cases, one needs to be able to devote a significant amount of time over a couple of weeks to jump through all the requisite hoops.
Keep in mind, you not only have to do this for every social media site you’re on but every store you’ve shopped, every forum in which you’ve participated even if it was only reading, any newspaper or magazine to which you’ve subscribed, any music service even if you only used the free version, and any other website anywhere that has asked for your email address and gotten it. All of them. Every last one.
You spend a couple of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months getting your name off all those websites, so you should be good, right? Not hardly. In fact, you’ve just started.
Digital Information That Lingers
You already know that all those other places, from Facebook to your local grocery store, sell data. But have you ever thought about who buys that data and where it is stored? Welcome to the wonderful world of data brokers. They are the firms that buy data, any data, directly from the source, aggregates it, collates it, segregates it, parses it, and then resells it to marketing companies and other places that use the data to know how to better convince you to buy more stuff. It’s a fantastic business that makes a shit ton of money, but it’s also extremely competitive. There are hundreds of data brokers around the world and the ones that make the most are the places that have the most unique data.
For example, let’s say there’s a new startup that is making a feminine hygiene product targeted to highly competitive women athletes between the ages of 16 and 45. Outside that age range, the product is practically useless and may have some unhealthy side effects, not to mention the fact that if you’re not extremely active in some kind of energy-burning sport, the product is painful to use. Sounds rather horrible, doesn’t it?
Perhaps, but if their marketing team can assemble data on enough women who fit the criteria, learn their ages, their sport, and where the largest number of them gather, they can target a no-miss marketing campaign that informs the people who can actually use the product without building too much curiosity on those outside the target range who might be harmed by the product. This allows them to sell the product over-the-counter rather than by prescription only, which would require going through the long process of FDA approval. It’s doable, but first, they have to have incredibly accurate data and they get that data from brokers.
Here’s the thing: you didn’t create an account with the brokers. They don’t know you. They don’t really care anything about you. They don’t need to know your name, though it’s probably in the data somewhere. While all the information about you is valuable, from their perspective, who you actually are is irrelevant. There’s no sign-up form, and you only indirectly give consent for your data to be used.
How do they get permission to use and sell your data? You provide it when you agree to any website’s Terms of Service. This is the small print. And because those Terms of Service contracts don’t name the specific brokers buying your data, you never know who has what. So, the only way to know who has what is to partner with an expert, and yes, this part is going to cost you some money.
This is where you need a service like DeleteMe at joindeleteme.com, and no, I am not being compensated in any way for making this suggestion, though if they were to toss a couple of farthings at me as I stand shivering in digital snow I wouldn’t object. You pay them, they do their best to remove your data from as many places as they can. How much you pay them depends on whether you keep using the Internet and thereby creating more data that needs to be scrubbed. They have multiple plans and whether or not any of those plans are affordable depends on how sensitive you are to have all that data bought, sold, used, and sold again.
Here’s the downside, though. There’s no way to guarantee that they’ve gotten all your data from all the brokers. They’ll give you a guide for going it on your own if you want, but be aware that doing so likely involves mounds of actual pulp-based paperwork because these brokers really don’t want to lose your data.
If you manage to get through all the data brokers and get your info deleted, you’re roughly 80-90% done. Chances are pretty good that Googling your name yields zero accurate results. For a lot of people, this may be enough, but for the rest of you, there are still a couple more things to do.
The Final Edges of Your Footprint
With all the big stuff out of the way, and expect that you’re anywhere from six weeks to six months into the process at this point, you can now focus on those tiny little details that everyone else missed. These are the little-known forums and non-corporate websites (like this one) where you may have left a comment. Or maybe that mom-and-pop company you worked for fifteen years ago still has a picture including you with the rest of the gang at the company picnic. These are the little places that typically don’t sell data because they don’t collect that much. Yet, they still get crawled by Google and other search engines and might prevent your complete erasure from the Internet.
What do you do? Search them out, find them, and then ask them to remove whatever digital trail crumb you’ve left there. Most of the time, a simple, polite request is all that’s needed. However, be aware that they’re under no legal obligation to remove anything unless you were under the age of 18 at the time or can prove in court that whatever they have posted is doing irreparable harm.
If your info is on an old Blogger website or in a YouTube video or any other property owned by Google, you can make a formal request to have the content removed. There will be more hoops to jump through and can take some time to get a response, but unless there is a prevailing rights issue (such as signing a release to appear in a video), the content is usually removed in a matter of days. Keep in mind, though, this only applies to the information on any Alphabet-owned property and would not, for example, apply to independent websites like this one.
You’ll also want to hit up Google and other search engines about removing any outdated search results. Google has a Remove Outdated Content tool specifically to help with this problem. Keep in mind the tool only applies to web search results that are outdated. Anything that is actively updated doesn’t apply. If you’re not sure, you can read all the limits and qualifications in Google’s support system.
Finally, when all this is done and you’re practically non-existent, it’s time to remove your email addresses. Close all your email accounts and go back to the snail mail that your grandparents used. Mind you, the mail service isn’t nearly as efficient as it was 50 years ago. You’re going to wait a couple of weeks for simple correspondence with a friend. If you’re attempting to communicate with a corporation, it’s going to take longer because they’re going to want you to “go to our website…” Companies no longer understand humans who are completely disconnected from the Internet.
There you have it. You’re approximately 99% removed from the Internet. If there remains some little mention of you in a cached file somewhere, chances are extremely slim that anyone can find it, and if they did it wouldn’t link back to you in any digital form. You can now unplug your wifi and return to a pre-digital existence if that’s what you really want.
Considering Alternatives to Goodbye
Completely removing all traces of yourself from the Internet is a drastic move. Certainly, doing so limits your television viewing options. If you still need to use software, such as Microsoft Office or any of the Adobe Creative Suite, those are only available with an Internet connection and you have to give them an email address. You’ll also need a landline since just having a cell phone account means your data is right back out there. Removing your data not only erases you from the Internet but also makes you completely invisible to large portions of society. Is that really what you want?
An alternative might be to consider reducing but not eliminating your footprint. There is a lot you can do to cut down the number of places where your information exists. Yes, it will still be sold and re-sold. There are not any practical steps you can take to avoid that. But you can reduce the amount of information that’s gathered and make your footprint smaller without having to spend weeks or months trying to get everything removed.
Here are some things you might try:
- Cut back to only one social media account and limit your activity there. Let’s say, for example, that you’re entire extended family is on Facebook and that’s the only way you have of communicating with them anymore. You don’t have anyone’s address or phone number or email address. Having a Facebook account is important for that reason if nothing else. That’s okay! The trick is to limit your activity to interaction with your family. No public posts. No commenting on other people’s public posts. Keep everything neat and tidy and don’t say anything to anyone you don’t absolutely need to say.
- Choose one streaming service and eliminate the others. The nature of entertainment today is that you need some kind of streaming service to watch anything. If you’re completely disconnected, there goes much chance of even getting local broadcast stations because cable companies want an email address and sell your data as well. Whether you go with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, or something else, pick one that suits you and cut out the others.
- Don’t use a major email provider. You need an email address for just about every form of interaction with anyone else on the planet. However, it doesn’t have to be Google or any other major service that sells detailed analysis of everything you do with that address. Services such as ProtonMail, Startmail, Tutanota, and Zoho Mail are known for their safety, security, and privacy. Note that there may be some fees for certain services, but it can be worth it to keep your data a little more private.
- Use an offline document system. Sure, Microsoft Office and Google’s online tools are convenient, but there are data leaks written into every crevice of their Terms of Service. You have alternatives, the best of which are open source. Personally, I use Apache OpenOffice. It works well for the straightforward type of writing that I do. There are some limits to database merge features and a few other high-end functions, but I’m guessing that for 80% of people it is going to work just fine. Yes, you’ll need an email address to download it, but after that, it operates just fine without an Internet connection.
- Get a record player and buy vinyl. I laughed when I googled “alternatives to streaming music” and the result was lists of streaming music. Here’s the thing: if it’s online, they’re selling your data, including your listening habits, and they’re not paying artists shit. So, you buy a record player. They run around $100 for a simple turntable with USB and Bluetooth connections. Almost every artist releases their music on vinyl now in addition to digital formats. Buy the vinyl, then use the USB connection to transfer the music directly to your phone. Use your phone’s media player to play the music you purchased. Yes, your phone provider is going to sell some of the data, but not anywhere near as much as Spotify, and the artists stand a better chance of making a living.
There are a lot of other things you can do, but that should be enough to get you thinking in the right direction. There are alternatives to almost every major online service. Sure, some of them may involve shelling out a little bit of money in exchange for your privacy, but if the issue is important to you, the minimal cost is worth the reward.
At the end of the day, and this podcast, we have to accept that eliminating all our data from the Internet is not only a separation from all things digital but a significant separation from much of society. Yes, being online means giving up some of your personal data. In most cases, though, that data is not being used to harm you in any way. If we moderate our online presence and stop sharing photos of every meal, every new outfit we purchase, and every random thought that somehow manages to cross our brains, then there’s significantly less data for us to lose.
We created this problem. We willingly if not anxiously participated in the construction of this digital monster and now we’ve lost a lot of the control we might have once exercised. If you want to take some of that control back, consider that perhaps the best answer is to not give companies so much fodder.
And get yourself a personal Terms of Service. Now. Do it.
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