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How to ‘deep clean’ your online activity


How to 'deep clean' your online activity

Image copyright House of Commons
Image caption Jared O'Mara made degrading jokes about pop stars

Jared O'Mara is not the first person to have old comments he posted online come back to haunt him.

The Labour MP resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee after misogynistic remarks and degrading jokes he posted more than 10 years ago resurfaced.

The scandal raises the question: what steps can you take to avoid old online posts – that may no longer reflect your point of view – coming back to haunt you?

But first a warning! Trying to hide your online history could draw more attention to it, than just leaving it alone – and an attempted cover-up could be a bigger scandal than the original posts.

Search for yourself

A good place to start is typing your name into a search engine and seeing what comes back.

You may need to do a deep dive, several pages into the results to find old material you had forgotten was online.

The easiest way to remove embarrassing posts from the past is to log in to the website you posted them on, and delete them at the source if possible.

Revisit old haunts

Check old message boards you used to frequent to make sure you did not leave any regrettable posts online.

Your username may not have been your real name, but people may still associate it with you.

Message boards often let you search for all the posts made by your account, allowing you to remove or edit anything you no longer want online.

You could also run a web search on your old message board usernames to check you have not missed anything.

Delete old social accounts

Remember Myspace? Former Faceparty fan? Gone from Gaydar?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption What lurks on your Myspace account?

The three networks – and several others – suffered a great exodus when newer social websites arrived. But did you deactivate your old account, or leave it to fester unattended?

Old social network profiles can be a treasure trove of embarrassing photos and regrettable stories. It might be time to log in and erase any profiles you no longer use.

Change your name

Many comments sections on news websites are powered by bigger social networks such as Facebook and Disqus.

If you had used your real name on these sites, you could change your name and photo on the associated accounts so that old embarrassing posts are instead attributed to a pseudonym.

However, this does breach the terms and conditions of some social networks.

Exercise your "right to be forgotten"

EU citizens can ask search engines to remove results connected to their name, if they are judged to be irrelevant or outdated.

This means news stories, old social media posts and blogs can be hidden from search results, making them less likely to resurface.

Controversially, the right to be forgotten has been used by criminals and people involved in public scandals to hide news reports featuring their name, on the grounds that they are "outdated". Critics say people are able to censor search results in this way.

But the EU ruling stands, and so Google, Bing and other search engines let citizens request the removal of certain results.

As the ruling only applies to the EU, the "hidden" results may still appear for people using the search engine outside the EU.

Wait for new laws in May

The EU's new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will give people more control over the data they have shared online.

Under the new rules, people will have the right to order websites and social networks to delete embarrassing old posts.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption New laws will give greater control to citizens

However, in some cases the websites will be allowed to reject the requests – for example, if a post was of scientific or historical importance.

Despite Brexit, the UK is adopting the GDPR in its own Data Protection Bill. It will come into force in May 2018.

Demand deletion

Some social networks make it difficult for you to permanently delete your account, encouraging you to temporarily deactivate it instead.

Facebook does provide a page where you can request a permanent account deletion, while Twitter's standard deactivation procedure deletes an account after 30 days.

Deleting an account on Facebook and Twitter makes public posts disappear – but copies may still appear in search engine results.

Protect your accounts

Often the material shared in private messages is more sensitive than what we post publicly. It is always a good idea to protect online accounts with a strong, unique password.

Image copyright Getty Images

If a website offers it, enable two-factor or two-step verification, which makes it harder for anybody to get into your account without permission, because they need both your password and your mobile phone.

One final word of advice…

Nothing you share on the internet is truly private, and once something is out there on the worldwide web, it can be very difficult to cover it up again.

Several sites scrape social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and archive the posts they find – while the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine does a similar thing for websites including message boards and blogs.

So to be safe, try not to post embarrassing content online in the first place.

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