Privacy check, part three: Online reputation services

Companies scour the Web to discover sites on which you are mentioned, rate your reputation, and attempt to remove negative or otherwise unwanted personal information--sometimes.

Dennis O'Reilly Former 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.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

If a Web directory lists your telephone number, address, and other personal information, you can often ask that the data be removed, but the public databases the directory scanned to find your private data are probably still offering the information to anyone who wants it.

Likewise, when someone makes a negative comment about you on a site, you may be allowed to request that the comment be removed only to have the remark reappear there or elsewhere. Several services offer to monitor your online reputation and remove inaccurate, unflattering, or other private information.

I tried out one of the leading reputation-monitoring services--Reputation.com (formerly Reputation Defender)--but decided not to test another reputation-protection site--Abine's DeleteMe--because of a bad experience I had with another Abine product.

Can you trust a privacy-protection service?
In a post last month on adding do-not-track to your browser, I wrote about the Abine's Targeting Advertising Cookie Opt-out (TACO) browser extension for Firefox and Google Chrome that monitors and blocks online ad networks. A couple weeks later, I described a temporary solution to Gmail's failure to open in Chrome.

Since browser problems are often due to conflicts with add-ons and extensions, I disabled my Chrome extensions one at a time to determine whether one of them was causing the blockage. Sure enough, disabling the Abine TACO extension fixed the Gmail-loading problem.

When I looked into the situation, I discovered Cade Metz's article from last July in the Register that describes the negative reaction of TACO users to changes that Abine made after the company acquired the program from its developer, Christopher Soghoian. The extension's size jumped from 8KB to 3MB, according to Metz, primarily through the addition of encryption and other new tools that aren't on by default. (The program's size appears to have decreased to less than 2MB now.)

Abine recently announced the DeleteMe service that promises to remove your accounts from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Yahoo, Gmail, Match.com, eHarmony, Netflix, and other Web services. The removals cost $10 per account you want to delete.

For $50, Abine claims it will delete a search result from Google, Bing, or Yahoo; a YouTube video; a blog post; or an article on a Web site. Removing an entry from the MyLife people directory costs $25, and deleting personal information from 12 different people-search databases costs $75. The removals can take up to six weeks, and while Abine promises that the data is gone for good, there's no guarantee it won't reappear in the directories in the future.

Abine's rates strike me as expensive, especially considering you can contact most of the services to have your data removed for free. Last month I described how to delete Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Windows Live accounts.

An article posted last January at Squidoo explains how to remove your personal information from Web directories. The story also covers removing Google search results using the Google Webmaster Tools.

Going the manual-deletion route may require a good deal of time and effort, but it lets you avoid sharing your personal data with yet another company.

Reputation service digs deep to find sites referring to you
DeleteMe takes a piecemeal approach that doesn't identify all the sites holding your personal information the way other reputation-management services do. One of the most popular online-persona managers is Reputation.com. For $11 per month the MyReputation service will list all the sites on which you appear, track searches on your name, and provide an overall rating of the tone of your online reputation.

Other MyReputation plans cost $34 and $60 a month and promise to provide even more control over the Web presence of a person or an organization by submitting biographies to sites relevant to your profession or business. I tested only the basic MyReputation service.

After you sign up for the service, it takes several days for the discoveries to complete, but you can begin to identify irrelevant sites among the results. Select these and click Not Me to remove them from the results. The Discoveries list the page title, often the first few lines of text, and a link. In my case, many of the entries were duplicates, but there wasn't an excess of redundancy.

Anyone who makes a living on the Internet needs to monitor use of their intellectual property. I used to search regularly for sites that scraped and reposted my blog posts without permission. Unfortunately, the practice has become so commonplace and easy to hide that attempts to control it are futile.

These thieves usually leave out the name of the author/creator. Sites using your name are different. MyReputation rates your visibility on Google and other search engines, the percentage of positive or neutral references versus negative ones (your tone), and the percentage of entries you can exercise some control over. For example, I rated 25 percent for visibility, 100 percent for tone, and 20 percent for control.

MyReputation search for personal information
Get a rating of your Web visibility, tone, and control via the MyReputation service. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

In my case, about 20 percent of the initial discoveries were irrelevant, which is pretty good considering how common my name is. The later discoveries seemed to be more accurate: MyReputation returned just less than 1,500 discoveries, which I trimmed manually to 1,383. Some of the sites MyReputation found date back to 2002 and would have been nearly impossible to find using Google or another search engine alone.

Along with the blog posts and articles you'd expect from a tech writer were some surprises. MyReputation found references to my name and work in newspaper articles and on Google Books pages. There were entries from several Web people directories, including Spokeo, MyLife, and 123people.com. Overall, scrolling through the entries was an eye-opening experience.

MyReputation Discoveries page
MyReputation Discovery shows the titles of the pages referencing you, along with the first text on some pages and a link to the page. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you choose to destroy a record, a window opens asking you to confirm the addition of the Web page to your "destroy cart." Once you've found all the pages you want MyReputation to remove, you check out to the tune of $30 per erasure. The Reputation.com FAQ page says "the length of time it takes to have the item removed varies but in general will be removed within 30-90 days." Some references, such as those in newspaper articles and court records, can't be excised--at least not legally.

MyReputation notification of an item added to the destroy cart
Check an item you want to remove and click Destroy to add it to your MyReputation "destroy cart." screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Reputation.com's MyPrivacy service reports the public sites providing your private information. For free, MyPrivacy returned my current city of residence and five previous street addresses dating back more than 20 years. Removing the information requires an upgrade to the full version, which costs $99 a year.

Note that the company is in the process of changing its service lineup. I tested MyReputation for seven days earlier this month, but a few tweaks have been implemented since then, and a Reputation.com spokesperson said new and restructured services will be unveiled in coming weeks.

Available only to individuals for themselves and/or their children
Almost everyone who uses a PC has entered their name in Google to see what comes up. That's nothing compared to the sites MyReputation Discovery finds. Since this information can be used against your best interests, Reputation.com is available only to individuals for searches on themselves or their children--no employers, no school admissions offices, and no online stalkers.

According to the Reputation.com FAQ, the company validates the identity of its customers when they sign up. It also limits the material it will attempt to remove:

Our removal ("Destroy") service is designed to help individuals regain control over unintentionally posted or outdated personal information disclosed to the public Internet, and address potentially libelous, slanderous, defamatory or invasive information about them. We do not target news/media articles for removal. Nor do we seek to get government records removed from the Internet. We believe that individuals have the right to express ideas freely, and we support the freedom of the press to inquire fully about issues of legitimate public interest....

The company states its underlying philosophy succinctly:

...(I)t is the right of individuals to know what others are saying about them, and for private individuals to protect themselves from unintentional, inappropriate, or illegal intrusions of their privacy.

I couldn't have said it better myself.