Once something sticks to the Web, good luck getting it unstuck

Have your embarrassing moments been immortalized online? Getting them removed is even harder than you think -- even when you do everything right.

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A few months ago I got an email from a woman about a story I'd written nearly three years ago. To protect her privacy I'll call her Samantha Sugarlips.

In that story, which I'd written for my somewhat more sarcastic blog, I mocked this woman for posting photos and other personal information to Facebook, then turning around and suing the social network for allowing other people to view them. At the time it seemed like nothing more than a desperate attempt to generate publicity for Samantha, an aspiring actress, especially given the fact that she had posted similar photos to her own Web site as well as to MySpace. (As it turns out, the real story is quite different -- but that's a topic for another time.)

My blog post was hardly the only one to talk about the suit, but I had a bit of fun at her expense and included some of the photos available on her other pages. Those photos, with links to my story, kept showing up in Google Images whenever anyone searched on her real name. Now Samantha was writing to me to ask if I would please remove that post, as she was embarking on a new career and my story could prove embarrassing if not outright damaging to her reputation.

I thought about this for a bit before agreeing. If I had written a straight news story, and if Samantha had been a public figure, I probably would have declined. There's a long history of people in power trying to erase or distort the past, and that's not something I can endorse. That's one reason why no amount of gentle persuasion is likely to convince a real news site to remove those stories about her. But this was a silly story that was well past its pull date and of no importance to anyone but Samantha -- and it seemed quite important to her.

I compromised by leaving the story in place but redacting her name where it appeared. I replaced most of her photos with pictures of adorable kittens. I removed any tags that included her name and changed the filename for the one photo I kept of her where I had obscured her features. I submitted a request to Google asking them to remove the old page from its cache and created a new URL for the redacted story. I told Samantha that it would be a while but eventually Google would drop the story featuring her name and photo from its cache and replace it with the redacted one. I thought my work was done.

I was wrong.

Recently Samantha wrote to me again, telling me she had Googled her name and found an unredacted copy of my story on a very popular Web site. And of course she had -- I had posted it there, in order to drive traffic, and then totally forgotten about it. Oops. I wrote to that site and explained the situation. Within an hour they had removed it. (Though it's still in Google's cache as I write this.)

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