It may be impossible to remove all traces of embarrassing, inaccurate, or sensitive personal information from popular Web sites, but you can make the data more difficult for people to find.
Dennis O'ReillyFormer CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Once material has been uploaded to a Web server, it begins to propagate to other servers and to the PCs of Web browsers. Removing all traces of an image, video, post, or other information on a Web site becomes more difficult the longer the data resides on a public server.
Even if you sign up for a service such as Reputation.com that promises to excise inaccurate, unflattering, or other private data from public sites, there's a chance the material will resurface somewhere. (I described Reputation.com's privacy-protection services in a post from last January.)
File a complaint about privacy-invading YouTube videos
I was reminded of how difficult it can be to erase inappropriate Web content when a friend asked me last week how he could remove an embarrassing video on YouTube that his friends had posted back in his college days. He couldn't remember his old YouTube username and password, and the college e-mail address he used as his ID was long gone.
The video was the first result that appeared whenever anyone searched his name on the site, and while it wasn't as outrageous as some unflattering YouTube content can be, it certainly did not show him in his best light.
If he had posted the video and could remember the account name and password, he could simply select the video in his list of items and choose Actions > Delete. The YouTube Help site explains how to recover a lost account name or password, whether or not the account is linked to a Google ID. (YouTube began requiring a Google account last year.)
In this case, someone else had uploaded the video. If my friend were still in contact with the person, he could ask that they remove the unwanted content. Otherwise, his best option is to open the video, click the flag icon beneath it, and choose Infringes My Rights > invades my privacy.
You're then led through a six-step wizard, after which you're presented with the Privacy Complaint form. The form asks for your real name, your e-mail address, the user name of the person who posted the video, the video URL, and your reason for wanting the content removed. YouTube gives the uploader 48 hours to take action on the complaint and promises to notify you by e-mail once the uploader or Facebook has acted on the complaint.
Does the process work? I haven't tried it, although I'm tempted to ask the service to remove a video review I made back in 2007 for a GPS device that has been off the market for years. The video was posted by a former employer and now serves only as a reminder of why I don't make videos for a living.
If my friend decides to go the complaint route, I'll let you know if he succeeds in having the unflattering video removed.
Untag yourself from Facebook photos
To my wife, Facebook is the Internet. She loves communicating and sharing with friends and family members located all over the world. Unfortunately, some of her contacts tag her in nearly all the photos they upload to their Facebook accounts. This causes tremendous clutter to her photo collection on the site.
The quick and simple solution is to select the photo, find your name in the caption, and click "remove tag." The "remove tag" option is also available to the person who administers the page a photo appears on, and you can remove any tags added to photos you've uploaded. If you added a tag to someone else's photo, only the person who posted the photo and the person tagged may remove the tag.
You can tag a photo with the names of people who are not on your Friends list. If you provide their e-mail address, they will be sent a link to the photo so they can view it, although they won't be able to view other Facebook content unless they register. For more information on photo and video tagging, see Facebook's Help Center photo-tagging page.
One of the comments to that post recommended the Account Killer site. I haven't tried the service myself, but it promises to help you delete accounts from dozens of Web services. The site also rates how easy it is to delete accounts for specific services, such as Skype, Twitter, and iTunes.
To find out what Web directories know about you, see parts one and two of the three-part series from last January on protecting your online reputation (part three is the post about Reputation.com I linked to above).
Another helpful resource for removing personal information from sites is this excerpt from How to Vanish by Bill Rounds, which the LewRockwell.com site has reprinted with the permission of the author. Note that the site has a definite political slant that I'm neither for nor against. This has always been and will always remain an entirely apolitical blog (thank goodness!)