The Internet is sort of like a bizarre version of Las Vegas – what happens on the Internet, stays on the Internet… forever, and everyone can see it.
Many people certainly feel that is the case with Facebook. I’ve heard a few anecdotal stories about users who’ve wanted to remove their accounts from the social networking website, only to find out that “deactivating” your account doesn’t actually remove your personal information from Facebook’s database.
Instead, it remains there indefinitely in case you come crawling back to rejoin. This was one of the major points in the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s report on Facebook released last week.
The report recommends that Facebook delete the information from its servers after users have been deactivated for a reasonable length of time. The change is needed to become compliant under Canada’s privacy law and the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has until Aug. 15 to comply.
Facebook does have an option to delete your account permanently. It’s just not too easy to find. But Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer at Facebook, defended the site’s practice in a recent interview with ITBusiness.ca.
“We have a process for deletion of accounts that users can follow,” he says. “It’s expressly recognized in the report.”
To see just how hard it is to remove an account from Facebook, I’ve decided to try it myself.
For the purposes of this test, I’ve created a Facebook account for a fictional character. Meet Fronzel Neekburm, a 29-year-old janitor working aboard the SCS Deepship 86. (My character is inspired by Space Quest 6).
I’ve filled out some basic information about Neekburm, such as his education and personal interests. I’ve uploaded a profile photo and befriended my real account. I’ve confirmed Neekburm’s account with a real e-mail address.
Now, suffering post-Facebook sign-up regret, I’m ready to delete my account. Neekburm is paranoid about leaving his information online, so he’s not satisfied with just deactivating the account to return later – he wants his information eradicated.
After all, there’s some embarrassing photos that he’s uploaded and some colleagues aboard the SCS Deepship 86 are starting to look badly on Neekburm for his strange obessession with giant space worms. He doesn’t want the social network account to wreak havoc with his professional life, so best to delete it.
So how hard could it be?
To start the process, I click on “Account Settings” under the “Settings” tab on the Facebook navigation bar. Right on the first page is an option to “deactivate” my account.
I click on this option and there’s a one-question survey asking why I’m deactivating. I must click an option to complete the task. There’s an option to explain further in a text-field.
There’s also another box to check off – “Opt out of receiving future e-mails from Facebook.” A note explains that despite my account deactivation, my friends could still invite me to events, tag me in photos or ask me to join groups. Unless I tick this box, I’ll continue to receive e-mails from Facebook.
It doesn’t sound like this will be a very permanent removal at all. Also, thanks to the Privacy Commissioner’s report, I know that Facebook will still be holding on to my information after I deactivate the account.
So where’s the delete option?
Next, I turn to Facebook’s “Help Centre” to find the answer. After reviewing the options presented to me, I decide to search for “delete account.”
The top answer I get explains that I can deactivate my account and that will make my information accessible to other users on Facebook. But if I want to come back to the service later, my information will still be there, waiting for me.
“Many users deactivate their accounts for temporary reasons and expect their information to be there when they return to the service,” it explains.
But I can delete the account. I simply have to log in and click on a provided link to submit a request. Sounds easy enough.
The link brings me to a “Delete my account” page. It explains that I will not be able to reactivate my account or retrieve any of the content I’ve put on Facebook. There is a Submit and a Cancel button.
Clicking “Submit” brings up another box with bold, red text warning “You are about to permanently delete your account. Are you sure you want to do this?” I must enter in my password and a CAPTCHA security field to complete the process.
Next, a notice informs me that my account has been deactivated and will be permanently deleted within 14 days. But if I log in before that 14 day period, I can cancel the request.
Then I’m logged out of Facebook, and put back on the home page.
After completing this process, Neekburm’s profile is no longer accessible from my real Facebook account. In fact, he’s not even on my friends list anymore.
It seems like I was able to accomplish the account deletion without too much consternation. The 14-day period seems reasonable to me, so long as my personal information is indeed deleted after that time. It appears the account is invisible during that period, in any case.
The only thing to make this easier, as requested by the Privacy Commissioner’s report, would be to make the account deletion option more accessible. I did have to search for it in the Help Centre to find it.
Perhaps it could be placed alongside the deactivation option in the Account Settings page, with clear descriptions of what both options entail.
Eventually deleting the information of users who’ve been inactive for months also seems reasonable.