How to remove your data from the internet

Can anything short of magic make your digital footprint disappear?

Nearly 90 years after his death, Harry Houdini is still revered for escaping a straitjacket while suspended upside down from a crane, and living to tell about being buried alive and submerged in water. He was the master of removing himself from one seemingly impossible situation after another.

However, if alive today and asked to help businesses remove a digital footprint from the Internet, even he might look at the stunt with a sceptical eye.

Removing data from the Internet has been made a bit easier with a recent court ruling where Google is obliged to remove certain search results as long as an individual requests their information to be omitted from search results. But it doesn't guarantee that content is completely removed; it just makes finding negative content a little bit harder.

The potential certainly exists for employees' online habits to prove problematic for their employers. A recent GFI survey found that one-third (33%) of small business employees use social networks for personal reasons while working.

Using search engines to do background research has become routine in all walks of life. Googling a job applicant is practically the first order of business for hiring managers. Online reputation management, for professional and social reasons, is essential in today's digital world.

Reclaiming your online reputation is time-consuming and a test of patience. Requesting the online publisher remove the content in question is a good first step (though most websites aren't legally obligated to acquiesce). Deleting accounts with social media giants Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is another logical move.

High cost of customer loss

One of the top priorities for any business is protecting its reputation. The speed with which information travels on the web can be a big help in achieving this goal – or a giant hindrance. It all depends on the content being disseminated.

A hit to reputation, warranted or otherwise, can leave businesses scrambling to retain customers and recoup lost revenue. According to Accenture, $5.9 trillion consumer dollars are annually up for grabs globally as dissatisfied customers change suppliers. To that end, 28% of customers said comments posted to social media sites factor into their buying decisions.

Preventative measure

Preventing these problems is best achieved by being proactive. Certain email archiving solutions can extract key bits of data from corporate email, which may provide insight into workforce morale.

Of course, there's no substitute for maintaining an "open-door policy." Businesses benefit from owners, executives and managers who routinely communicate with employees. It reinforces the notion that everyone's opinion, effort and commitment to the company is valued. It also stands to reason that employees who feel appreciated are less likely to talk negatively about their employer, or risk publicly embarrassing themselves out of concern for the company's well-being.

At the end of the day, though, businesses should focus on controlling their own content, specifically the volume of it. A popular and affordable method for burying unwanted information is to pump out positive content (and optimise online profiles) that tips search results in your favour.

Even if remotely true, bad press for businesses can be extremely difficult to remove from the Internet. But just as Houdini achieved with his vanishing elephant act, it's possible to make online content disappear – from view, anyway.

  • Sergio Galindo is the general manager of the Infrastructure Business Unit at GFI Software.