What might be revealed on the internet about anyone is staggering — and downright scary at times.
Enter your name in Google to see what’s known about you. Your phone numbers may show up among the search results, along with your email and street addresses, and possibly other information you use to log in to websites.
“The availability of personal contact information online can be jarring. And it can be used in harmful ways, including for unwanted direct contact or even physical harm,” Michelle Chang, Google’s global policy lead for search, blogged in April.
That’s when Google, by far the biggest search engine in the world, announced that you can ask to have your phone numbers and addresses removed from search results. This service is in addition to policies already in place that enable you to request the removal of bank accounts, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and even images of your signature — in other words, the kind of stuff that could help a crook or creep steal your identity, commit financial fraud or expose your private data online through what’s known as doxxing.
Google hasn’t made it simple to make such removal requests, which involve navigating a Google support page and telling the company why it should grant your request. Among the steps you need to take: directing Google to the information, search results or web page you want removed, and letting the company know whether you contacted the website owner.
A promise of streamlining search removal
But at its annual developers’ conference on May 11, Google announced it will roll out a new tool that it says will streamline the request process. Not every detail has been worked out, and Google still must approve your request. But you’ll be able to access the tool either in the Google app for Android or Apple products or by clicking on the three vertical dots next to many individual Google search results.
Clicking the three dots summons the About this result panel, which Google introduced in February 2021. The feature, still in beta, tells you more about the source of a given search result, whether the connection to the site is secure and more.
Google plans to add an option within About this result that will let you generate a removal request as it occurs to you, says Danny Sullivan, public liaison for Google Search.
The information is still out there
Keep in mind that this request is tied to the search result. Removing your email address or phone number does not remove them from the website hosting the information.
To achieve that result, you would have to ask the site’s owner to remove the information. If they agree, the information eventually will be exorcised from the specific Google search result as well.
You can’t make a single request to have Google remove your phone numbers or addresses across all search results. Removal requests must still be made on a page-by-page basis, Sullivan says.
Google can deny your request
Google has a standard process for determining whether to comply with your request. It checks whether the information you are asking to remove resides on the host page. It makes sure you are the person whose information would be removed or you have a close relationship to the person.
And Google may turn down your request if it determines that leaving the information intact is in the “public interest,” perhaps because of its newsworthiness or because it is part of a public record on a government site. You can’t ask Google to remove content just because you don’t like what it says, such as a post from someone who calls you a lousy plumber.
“We can’t assess, ‘Was this true or not true?’ and make those kind of judgments,” Sullivan says. “By default, we try to show stuff that we think is generally reliable or useful information.”
Google will reach a decision on your removal request in a week or so, he says. If you’re denied, Google will provide an explanation.
Even if Google agrees to remove your information from its search results, the material may show up in other search engines’ results, on social media or on websites.
Competitor Microsoft Bing, a distant second to Google, has an online Report a Concern to Bing page, where you can request the removal of certain information from its search engine, though it is not a seamless process. Click the Feedback link at the bottom of the page, then click the Report a Concern link in the window that appears. Select your concern from the checklist and follow further instructions for reporting your particular issue.
Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
You can pay others to remove your information
For a fee, companies including DeleteMe, Kanary and OneRep will wipe out some of your personal data floating across cyberspace.
What Google is doing “is one important step, hopefully of many, that’s going to give consumers and citizens more rights and more controls over their data that’s stored at third parties,” says Rob Shavell, chief executive of DeleteMe. He says 11 percent of searches are related to people.
DeleteMe compiles a list of third-party “data brokers” that peddle all sorts of personal information about you, including the make and model of your car, photos of your home and its worth, your children’s ages, mother’s maiden name, political affiliation and more.
You can visit the DeleteMe site to access free guides to help you request the removal of information on your own. Since the process is lengthy and painstaking, many people instead pay $129 a year to let DeleteMe handle the job on their behalf. Kanary charges $90 a year for similar services, and OneRep charges $100.
“Can we delete you from the internet? Absolutely not,” Shavell says. “It is an ongoing service because your information inevitably comes back when you do things like sign up or for an application or register for something and you don’t carefully read where they’re sharing that data.”
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.