A few days ago, a columnist contacted us for an article about privacy. The question was pretty basic: how can people delete private stuff from the Internet?

While the intention is good, we think the question is misdirected.

One of the big problems with privacy online is that people think they are being anonymous while surfing the Web. They’re not. You are much more anonymous stopping to talk with everyone in a crowded mall than you are after only 5-minutes of surfing on the Internet. Every service provider, every website, and every server has a record of your visit. Not to mention the information that is gathered through your smartphone!

In addition, as you enter data in online forms, create accounts to make purchases, send emails or photos to friends, or even search for inexpensive kitty litter, you are putting more and more details out there about yourself.

And all that information on all those servers is backed-up and automatically copied on even more servers.

And then there’s the question of ownership of the pics and stuff you’ve posted social websites and ownership. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that as the creator, you own your stuff. (By ‘creator’ we mean pictures that you’ve taken, and stuff that you’ve done – not stuff that you’ve copied or reposted like pictures of Brangelina taken from People Magazine.)

The bad news is that social media sites claim the rights to use your stuff for free. For example, Facebook:

Specifically for photos and video uploaded to the site, Facebook has a license to use your content in any way it sees fit, with a license that goes beyond merely covering the operation of the service in its current form. Facebook can transfer or sub-license its rights over a user’s content to another company or organization if needed. Facebook’s license does not end upon the deactivation or deletion of a user’s account, content is only released from this license once all other users that have interacted with the content have also broken their ties with it (for example, a photo or video shared or tagged with a group of friends).” (our emphasis)

The other social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and so on have similar policies with regard to your stuff.

The one that shocked us was business professional site LinkedIn, which claims the right to “copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, process, analyze, use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered…” (The Telegraph)


With the most popular sites proclaiming the right to do anything they want with your stuff, is it reasonable to think that it’s possible to delete stuff from the Internet?

In general, it is best to assume that anything you post on the Internet will be there forever.

If you keep this in mind, at least you won’t be surprised down the road when a secret photo you posted suddenly reappears. Instead, you just might reconsider posting it in the first place.

Privacy policies notwithstanding, the reality is that we shouldn’t have any expectations of privacy on the web.

Friends will share our secrets (and photos and videos), the companies we work for are able to check up on what we’re doing with our corporate email accounts, and service providers know more about us than we can imagine. And that’s even before we get to talking about social media sites and bad guys trying to do bad things to us.

Once we accept that, we can make better decisions about how to best navigate the rough waters of privacy on the Internet.

The question becomes the admittedly difficult but manageable “how can I limit what information I put out there about myself”’ and not the impossible “how can I put the genie back in the bottle?