New technologies have the power to reshape civilization. Transformative developments like the calendar and the printing press not only reorganized society; they fundamentally changed how individuals thought. Today, digital storage is cheap and abundant. As it pervades everyday life, it has shifted our expectations about permanence. In this age of internet-connectedness and cheap digital storage, we no longer need to forget.
We encode our heart rates, travel plans, and friendships into permanent storage. We welcome each minor convenience, and assume that sharing and storing are positive forces – or at least, that it may come in handy later.
The next Deletion Day
is on April 4th
It’s worth considering who this benefits.
Industries exist with the sole purpose of scraping photos and information about you to store, analyze, and sell.1 Advertisers, insurance companies, and police departments profile you based on your social media2 and browsing history.3 Photos, video, and audio recordings can be used to generate realistic “deepfakes”.4 Doxing5 and harassment campaigns are on the rise.6
The data you store online does not belong to you.
You may be aware of this reality from the news, or just a feeling in your gut. But it can be hard to know how to respond when so much of our attention and identity are wrapped up in the Internet.
On the topic of identity, it’s worth asking if uploading this much of ourselves to an unsympathetic, persistent medium was ever a good idea.7 As people, we grow and change. Maintaining a consistent personal brand may hamper our ability to grow as people;8 digital footprints don’t fade.
Deletion Day challenges the prevailing notion that “more is more”. In a culture that strives for permanence, we celebrate ephemerality, growth, and change. On April 4th, a chorus of Delete keys will ring out across the world. We hope you’ll join us.
How to celebrate Deletion Day
Deletion Day can be celebrated on your own, with friends, or within your community.
Whether you’re anxious about a burgeoning surveillance state or simply hoping to declutter the apps on your phone, there are plenty of ways for you to celebrate Deletion Day. Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Reduce your risk of profiling and doxing by deactivating unused online accounts. In the process, try to revoke privileges you granted while signing up, like location data or email access. We’ve collected a few guides and resources here.
- Save space (and battery life) by deleting apps from your phone that you no longer use.
- Break some habits by deleting an app that you use too much.
- Enter your name or username in quotes into a search engine and see what pops up. If any of it makes you uncomfortable, consider sending a deletion request.
- Phone some well-known data brokers9 and exercise your opt-out choices. We’ve included a few options in our tools guide.
- Open an old To Do list and delete anything that doesn’t seem important anymore. Revel in the time you’ve reclaimed, guilt free.
- Regain ownership of your photos by moving them off of the cloud. Even better, print a few and hang them on your wall.
- Install a utility to help you delete duplicate files and photos from your hard drive.
- Do you have ancient tabs open in your browser for “later”? Close them all. You’re free!
- For educators, lawyers, and other professionals: consider the personally identifiable information your school / firm / business tracks and stores. Organizations often keep more data than necessary. This puts people at risk, and may even be against the law.10
- For data scientists and website maintainers: take stock of the user data you’re tracking and recording. Do you need all that data? Is there a simpler way to achieve your goals that doesn’t strengthen advertising networks and infringe on user privacy?
There are endless ways to celebrate Deletion Day; the above list is just a start. Let’s surprise our computers by asking them to forget something, just this once.
A note on “Deletion”
When you upload a comment or photograph to a website, you usually grant ownership of that content to the website. When you later “delete” the content, the website might delete it. But it’s more common for a site to keep the content, and mark it as hidden so it doesn’t appear to end-users – including you. The same goes for edited posts; older revisions are stored in an archive. This is why, years after “deleting” your Facebook profile, you can log in, reactivate the account, and find your old posts right where you left them.
There are also third-party attempts to archive and “undelete” public content. These range from the well-meaning Wayback Machine to seedy sites like Sorted By Birth Date. In addition to these public archives, you can be sure that governments and data brokers store extensive archives of public content.
Since you can never fully delete anything off the Internet, any attempt to do so can feel like an uphill battle. Yet here are two powerful arguments for why deletion is still worthwhile.
First, the practical reason: malicious third parties will no longer be able to scrape your content. Your photos are better off collecting dust on a corporate server, where they are safe from scraping and duplication. Paying customers and intelligence agencies may always have access to the content. But revoking free, public access reduces your risk of being targeted by a stalker or “intelligence enthusiast”. Furthermore, the legal landscape is changing. With legislation like the GDPR and CCPA, companies are being forced to permanently delete your content after a set period. By requesting deletion, you start that process.
Second, the behavioral reason: as strange as it sounds, deleting content in an age of self-promotion can feel like a radical act in itself. Our hobbies, interests, travels, and opinions are judged as worthwhile through the lens of social media. The simple act of reclaiming ownership of our personal endeavors feels great. It provides a perspective that can inform future behavior, setting healthy and critical boundaries between public and private, digital and real. We’ve all become digital hoarders, and we’re long overdue for some spring cleaning.
Frequently asked questions
Why April 4th?
Have you ever made a typo when trying to access a website and seen
an error like
404: Page Not Found?
When you type a URL into your web browser, the computer on the other end tries to find a resource at that address. It can find photos, documents, or entire webpages. But if it can’t find anything, it needs a way to communicate the error. Computers on the Internet communicate using a protocol called HTTP, and the specific code for "Not Found" is 404.
April 4th is 4/04.
Another fun fact: George Orwell’s “1984” begins on April 4th, as the protagonist writes his first diary entry. Recording his thoughts is dangerous; if discovered, he’ll be “punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp” by the surveillance state.
Do I need to wait until April 4th?
Absolutely not! We chose April 4th as an arbitrary date to rally around. The best time to get started is right now.
We have created a separate page with specific tools and resources that may help with auditing and deletion.
Some other efforts in the same vein:
- Global Information Governance Day
- Montgomery Public Schools’ “Data Deletion Week” (2019)
- The International Association of Privacy Professionals Deletion Day (2018)
-  For instance: Clearview AI, Cambridge Analytica.
-  “How Normal Am I?” is an interactive demo of how uploaded photos and videos are analyzed. Text and sentiment analysis are just as sophisticated and flawed.
-  Palantir uses social media as in input to their predictive policing toolkit. Even your antivirus program is in on the racket.
-  While most coverage focuses on political implications, deepfake technology is most commonly used on a personal level for revenge porn and cyber-bullying.
-  “Doxing” (or “doxxing”) is the malicious practice of releasing documents about an online user’s identity, including names, addresses, or photographs. Read more here.
-  See “When Promoting Knowledge Makes You a Target” and “E3 Accidentally Doxed Over 2,000 Journalists, YouTubers, And Streamers”, for example.
-  Jenny Zhang has written an excellent essay on the topic.
-  Tijmen Schep has dubbed this “Social Cooling”.
-  “Data brokers” (also “information brokers”) collect, aggregate, analyze, and sell information about individuals from wide-ranging public and private sources. Read about some specific companies, or the general practice.
-  See, for instance, the GDPR (European Union) and the CCPA (California), as well as the right to be forgotten.