Deleting your digital past -- for good

Can you erase your tracks online? We tried to get a few bad mentions off the Net forever. Here's how we did.

Why? The US Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives almost total immunity to Web sites, says Fertik. Even if you can establish a legal case, the distinctly nonphysical nature of the Web -- where you, your defamer and the company that hosts the offending material can be in different states or countries, or simply be unknown -- means that sorting out jurisdictions can turn into a legal quagmire.

Likewise, Fertik adds, another surprise dead end is the place where many people launch their erasure efforts: Google.

If an item doesn't show up in a Google search, it's as good as being truly gone, right?

Wrong. "Removing content from Google or another search engine would still leave the original content that exists on the Web," says a Google spokesman.

The better route, according to the spokesman: "Users that want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page or the Internet hosting companies or ISPs hosting the content to find out their content removal policies."

Google does offer tools on its support page to help with urgent requests to prevent personal content from appearing in a search result, such as when credit card or Social Security numbers are accidentally or maliciously published on the Web. If you do manage to successfully remove such an item, you'll need to also make sure that Google no longer caches the information, the representative says.

If legal action is prohibitively complicated and Google and other search engines can't help, what's the best tactic for getting something erased? A little digital digging and a lot of good old-fashioned human contact.

Priority No. 1 is to try to reach a human being, says Chris Martin, founder of ReputationHawk.com , an online reputation management service. His company starts by tracking down someone who has access to the Web site in question -- either the author of the material or a third party like a webmaster or Web hosting service. "If the Web host is billing that person every month, if it's a paid account, they'll be able to contact them," Martin says.

Strike One: Misbegotten Quote

Here's a look at another case:

IT manager talks salty to a business publication -- Computerworld -- and later regrets it. On this topic, our experts were divided. Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin says it would be exceedingly rare for any mainstream publication to change the record for any reason. (Computerworld's editors agreed. The quote, with the source's name attached to it, still stands.)

ReputationDefender CEO Michael Fertik sees a little wiggle room, however. True, The New York Times is unlikely to change the record, but some smaller outlets might, he says.

"I don't know if I buy the journalistic integrity argument -- though I respect it. A lot of small newspapers will fold right away as soon as you threaten them," he says.

That said, he notes that ReputationDefender does not handle requests to expunge material from mainstream media.

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