Your life online is difficult to delete

Q: I don't like seeing lots of entries pop up when I plug my name into online search engines. Can I privatize my name?


A: Not easily.

You can ask friends to take down photos of you or delete mentions of your name in their Web sites, but good luck removing mentions of yourself from a database of public records, a media outlet or a community site such as, where disgruntled ex-girlfriends can post the names, towns and descriptions of men who have done them wrong.

You can shield your own Web site from search engines and search caches, however, or prevent Internet records such as the Internet Archive project's Wayback Machine by attaching a robots.txt file to your site.

That is what has done so that the men who have been written about on its site don't see their names pop up with a link to the Web site on search engine results, said its founder, Tasha Cunningham.

Using the robots.txt file as a privacy guard on your own Web site isn't foolproof, however.

"You're going to have to live with the fact that (your site) is going to be accessed in ways you didn't expect," said Pam Dixon, the head of privacy advocate World Privacy Forum. "You're going to have to accept it is going to be found."

It takes a fair amount of technological know-how to put your Web page on a secure site and password-protect it, she said.

Google Inc.'s tech support and privacy pages, however, provide detailed instructions on how to block your entire site from a search engine, in addition to how to get rid of cached, or historical, versions of your sites.

Dealing with content that others post about you, however, is more difficult.

You can set your social-networking profiles so they don't pop up online when your name is searched, but you could pop up in a friend's searchable profile if he mentions you.

If you want to get someone else to pull your name, image or content about you off her site, proceed with caution, said Michael Fertik, the founder of ReputationDefender Inc., a reputation-management company. First step: Ask nicely. Second: Ask again. Third: Pester.

Mr. Fertik's company attempts to "destroy" negative Web postings of clients. If the poster of the offending content refuses to remove the mention or image, one tack he suggests is to flood the first page of a search engine's results with positive mentions.

For example, create a personal Web site with your name in the site address, photo-sharing accounts such as Flickr, social-networking site profiles -- all of which can push unwanted entries down.

For those looking for more privacy, not less, options beyond politely asking someone to take down an offending name mention dwindle.

"If it's libel ... it can take a long time, but you have legal recourse," said Mr. Fertik -- against the person putting up the content, not the site owner or the search engine spreading the content.

Winning a defamation suit doesn't necessarily mean the libelous information will be gone from the Internet.

"What you can get from a defamation lawsuit is damages (from the content poster)," said Kurt Opsahl, the senior staff attorney at privacy advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The service provider is not obligated to take down the material. Many do as a matter of courtesy and good citizenship, and they are immunized from liability."

Some states also have common-law privacy protections. You might be able to take legal action if you can claim that a public revelation of private information caused you harm or that your name or image is being used for unsolicited commercial purposes.

Search engines are unlikely to help, though.

"Google is a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet and is not an arbiter of Internet content," said Google Inc. spokesperson Marya Grupsmith, although the company does block access to illegal content such as child pornography and some copyrighted videos.

"The search engine can help a person find Web sites that have published unwanted information about them," said Yahoo Inc. spokeswoman Shelia Tran. "The removal of that information is an issue between them and the publisher."

After you remove content from the Web -- for example, by deleting a Blogger account or shutting down a site -- search engines can still provide searchers with cached versions of the site for days, weeks and even months.

Still, you can request that your site's deleted be handled expeditiously.