Thursday, November 30, 2006

A company that defends digital reputations

There is a new company Reputation Defender that will scan the Internet for information about oneself and about family members (mainly children) and remove it (at least when self-posted, and in some cases, when posted by others). It has trademarked "MyReputation" and "MyChild". This company was reported by NBC4 (Washington) on Nov 30, 2006 in the Nightly News broadcast. The founder is Michael Fertik. According to him, about 1/3 of employers do "background investigations" with search engines (as well as searches of social networking sites). Here is the NPR story:

There are a few other startups doing this, such as Naymz. As has been noted in the media during the past years, there are also some companies that offer to "manage" online presence with profiles on their own sites, such as Ziggs.

The concept of “reputation defense” should be compared to a related but separate concept called “reputation intelligence” which has to do with companies defending the reputations of their brands, which I have discussed here on my blog.

“Reputation” is a subjective and evolving concept. Many people tie it to family links and experience it in a collective fashion, but that has become less true in the modern era of more individualism. Intellectual property law has built up a long tradition with respect to issues like libel and slander, as well as invasion of privacy, well documented in many texts on the Internet. But reputation is more general and pervasive than what these concepts invoke. The Internet poses particular issues because of “free entry” and the ease and practically zero cost with which people can put things up. Entries can stay up for years, cached in search engines (even buried within the texts of books), and the search engine companies are only now refining their techniques for dealing with this evolving issue. Employers have been particularly concerned about the tendency of teenagers and young adults to incriminate themselves on blogs and social networking sites (with respect to issues that seem mundane to some people, like underage drinking or minor drug use). Speakers often believe (with some good faith) that this speech represents legitimate protest of what these see as artificial social values that serve the interests of those “in power”, perhaps illegitimately, so this sort of problem can quickly become politicized. I have long been concerned about this and part of the concern is that the “First Amendment in Reverse” when used by employers and background investigation companies could turn out to be a new tool of social conformity. How is information about sexual orientation to be viewed in this regard, when there are employers for whom this is a big issue (most of all, the U.S. military with “don’t ask don’t tell”, and, to a lesser extent, teachers)?

It's important to note the different kinds of objection that can exist about content posted by a third party about a person or entity. Libel and invasion of privacy, and copyright infringement (to name a few problems) are legal concepts that can be backed up by litigation (or even prosecution). There have always been ways to have such content removed. A posting because one person does not like being perceived as "associated" with another entity because that entity referred that person does not sound like a legitimate cause for action. More troublesome is the idea that correct and generally legitimate information can become irrelevant with the passage of time and cause the person to be perceived poorly. The best discussion of this problem that I know of occurs in Goldfard/Ross "The Writer's Lawyer", Times Books, 1989, p. 133 in the chapter on invasion of privacy. "Reputation" is a shifting concept that exceeds the legal parameters of defamation. It is the "What will the neighbors think?" problem, and sometimes that can matter. To some people, it involves how others feel about a person with respect to the values of a particular (sometimes religious) subculture, especially with areas like that person's ability to serve as a role model or authority figure.

It is not clear what the takedown policies of ISPs would be if they received formal complaints about comments or references posted by others (or if complaints from "cleansing" companies could have any legal standing). Right now, the acceptable use policies or terms of service of ISPs generally relate to the legality of content: most of all, copyright infringement, but also some other issues well established like libel. (International issues come in to play; libel is more a problem in British law than in the U.S.) The takedown policies with respect to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) could provide a model for issues like this. And I am no fan of the DMCA. (Look for my blog entry, further back, on Tim Lee’s paper).

Perhaps the company would work with a webmaster over a particular person's reference on a case by case basis, informally at first. It does appear that it is possible to remove specific search engine results from certain engine databases (including caches) in many cases.

The company does insist that it cannot remove conviction records or other legitimate public records, or legitimate news stories backed up by facts. It does have an FAQ page.

One issue that has me concerned is the idea that a company really could clean a person’s “reputation” as many people perceive the social concept (that can affect other such as a person's family in some cases). My pen name “Bill Boushka” has 13 google pages; my legal name “John W Boushka” has 8, and “John William Boushka” has 3. This is true of a lot of people who have ever involved themselves with any public controversy (gays in the military for openers). Furthermore, synonyms in names represent an enormous opportunity for misidentification. (My entry on “Idology” as an ID service, or age verification with respect to COPA, comes into play). Yet, it is true that many people will have digital audit trails that will follow them for lifetimes, maybe not always to their advantage. I have written about this problem before and coined a term for it based on free entry, “leveraging.”

Blogging, amateur writing on personal sites, and self-presentation on social networking sites has exploded in the past few years, most of the expression done by "amateurs" with no legal training. Much of the content may be frivolous and silly, but some of it provides valuable debate, outside the usual well-funded interests that present issues only in a biased fashion or the estatlished "professional" journalistic press, that must water down much material for general public consumption. There is a lot at stake.

One point I want to stress here, about "my stuff." The names present in my sites are mostly bibliographic references to articles, or to names of people that appear in news stories already in the “established press” media, including print, film, television, and Internet. I do shoot pictures of public protests sometimes but I do not target individual people. I don’t photograph people in bars or at private gatherings (many people do this – I see cell phone pictures being taken on disco floors all the time -- and post them on the Net), even though I have seen many celebrities at some of these functions (including gay events). However, the references on my sites are factual and based on previous sources (in a very few cases, personal events).

Reputation defense should also be considered in comparison to the email spoofing problem, recently discussed by me at this blog entry.

Other references by me: Blogging and professionalism;
Blogging notes;
Employee blogging policies

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