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To Delete, or Not to Delete? If Only We Could.

Deleting Web and mobile app accounts can be comically difficult. This needs to change.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

I have reached peak digital overload. I know I’m not alone in saying this. As our online footprints grow, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by spam emails, distracted by constant updates and notifications, or just concerned about the size of those footprints.

So this week I went on a mission: I deleted a whole bunch of nonessential accounts for consumer apps and Web services.

Let me rephrase that. I tried to delete a bunch of nonessential accounts. Deleting online accounts can be annoying and circuitous. And I’m further convinced that this needs to change.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Looking for a simple “delete” option in your account settings for that messaging app, or that online shopping service? Good luck. Clicked on the “cancel account” link and saw an option to cancel a subscription cycle, but not to delete an account? Yep. Don’t quite know what the difference is between “deactivate” and “delete”? I’m with you.

To be sure, different kinds of online services fall under different rules and regulations when it comes to deleting accounts. And I should note that I’m not trying to delete everything. At one point I unsubscribed to Netflix, and wondered why I didn’t have the option to delete my account entirely. Several months later, when I ended up reactivating, I was glad my email was still tied to the account and my viewing history was still there.

As a tech reporter, I’m constantly signing up for new apps and Web services that I might not want to keep using. I try (key word: try) to keep track of all of these using a simple Excel spreadsheet. Right now, that spreadsheet has nearly 200 entries.

About 30 of these are utilities, financial services or health-record accounts. Another 45 or so are for mobile apps and Web services I use on a regular basis.

The rest are mostly the result of scattered app sign-ups, one-time online purchases and list-servs I don’t remember opting into. Sound familiar?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Some account deletions were easy, and I give those companies credit for making it that way, as much as they’d love to hold on to users. Tumblr went poof! with just a couple of clicks. Same with TripIt and Trello. As I’ve written before, in a column about account deletion, deleting Facebook is surprisingly straightforward (though I haven’t done this). The mobile app Path was also easy to delete.

But just as many consumer tech sites don’t offer a direct link to deletion. Some don’t even list it in their Help or FAQ sections. Instead, you have to send an email to Support, or go to Contact and fill out a general form email.

In my experience, Groupon, One Kings Lane, Hightail (formerly YouSendIt), Mailbox (owned by Dropbox), Glow, StitchFix, True&Co and Birchbox all required emails to Support. To be fair, all of them responded within a couple days. But I still haven’t figured out how to delete Snapchat.

Then there are sites that allow you to cancel your subscription, deactivate a service or remove credit card information, but aren’t fully deleting an account. When I requested account deletion from one women’s apparel company, the support team explained that they could deactivate my account and remove my credit card, but couldn’t delete the actual account, because I once placed an order through it.

I reached out to a handful of companies to ask why they had chosen not to offer more direct account-deletion options on their websites or in their apps. Only a couple responded, and no one really explained it.

In some cases where consumer apps handle sensitive financial information or transactions, the companies may have the same requirements as banks, which hold onto your account information for several years. My understanding is that apps like Square fall into this category (hence the “deactivation” option on the company’s site, but no deletion).

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Financial accounts aside, the Federal Trade Commission says there is no central regulation around whether an account for a consumer service should be deleted versus deactivated. COPPA, the Children Online Privacy Protection Act, includes the right for a child under 13, or their parent, to delete an account and its associated information. The CAN-SPAM Act establishes a set of laws around opting out of marketing emails. But for U.S. adults, there’s no single law that provides a universal right to account deletion.

Beyond the simple act of deletion, there’s another whole topic: What happens to my data, even if my account is deleted or deactivated? This isn’t always made clear — in fact, far from it.

My gripe, ultimately, isn’t about “the right to be forgotten” online, nor is it about making account deletion so swift and complete that people looking to do nefarious or illegal activities are enabled.

This is really about two things: One, in cases where it applies (nonfinancial services), the option to delete consumer tech accounts shouldn’t be so comically hard to find. It should involve just a couple of clicks from the drop-down menu of a person’s online account.

The other change I’d like to see is more transparency or explanation around deletion. Why is an online account deactivated but not deleted, and what does that mean? Exactly what residual data will remain, and possibly be shared with third parties? When a consumer tech company is absorbed by another company, where does that account “go”?

We hear a lot from tech companies about how intuitive and well-designed their apps and services are. The ability to delete accounts and personal information, and to understand what that really means, should be intuitive, as well.

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