Monday, September 17, 2007
Etched in Cyberstone
Unflattering records can be etched in cyberstone
By KEVIN COUGHLIN - Newhouse News Service
Anthony Campbell ought to feel relieved. The Rider University dean of students was cleared last week of criminal charges in the drinking death of a freshman, and Campbell’s lawyer expects to get all traces of the baseless indictment wiped from his record.
But the Internet has a longer memory — one that’s virtually impossible to erase.
“Now, people start with a Google search, then do a formal criminal background search. The former will produce results that the latter won’t. And I don’t see any way to prevent that,” laments Rocco Cipparone Jr., Campbell’s attorney.
The Net has enhanced free speech and self-expression for millions. But it’s proving a curse for others whose reputations become snarled in a Web of old news stories, nasty blog posts and indiscreet Facebook profiles that never fade away.
For fees ranging from $30 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, services such as ReputationDefender, DefendMyName, Naymz and International Reputation Management attempt damage control. They coax Web sites to yank contentious postings, or try to rig search results on Google and Yahoo so disputed links appear less prominently.
Even so, news stories and government records are practically etched in cyberstone. There is no magic digital eraser, experts say.
“Nothing you put on the Web is ever definitely gone,” says Richard Rosenblatt, former chairman of MySpace. Everything “is indexed by someone, somewhere.”
A CareerBuilder.com survey of 1,150 hiring managers last year found that one in four uses Internet search engines to vet job candidates, and one in 10 uses social networking sites. More than half of those managers said they reject applicants as a result.
Yet many victims are oblivious. Two-thirds of respondents from “Generation Y” (those under age 30) are unaware that potential employers are scoping them out online, according to a survey by Adecco, a consulting firm.
“If this keeps up, there will be no one to hire, no one to marry. Everyone has a past; no one is perfect,” says Amy Polumbo. Her crown as Miss New Jersey was jeopardized earlier this year by blackmail threats involving her own Facebook photos — suggestive pictures she intended to share only with friends.
Polumbo went public with her pictures. Now she crusades for prudence in posting, especially when using seemingly “private” sites.
Still, she says, “It’s really scary to think I don’t have privacy anymore. I feel like I can’t go out for my friends’ birthdays anymore or hang out and goof around, because someone might take a picture of me.”
Such concerns may be moot for future generations, when everyone’s life is an open book.
“If you don’t care, live like you don’t care,” suggests Bruce Schneier, author of “Beyond Fear” and a computer security expert. “If someone wants to deny you a job because of drunken pictures you posted five years ago, you don’t want to work there.”
Web users can try to cover their tracks. Hushmail and PGP promise secure e-mail. Bugmenot.com provides bogus e-mail addresses for logging on to Web sites. Anonymizer.com can route traffic through the Internet equivalent of a hall of mirrors.
But once names, photos and videos hit the Net, good luck reeling them in.
Google, the No. 1 search engine, offers steps for making Web sites invisible to its searches, and for removing indexed items on request. But requests usually are honored only if you operate the site in question. If your beef is with someone else’s site, Google says you should approach that site.
“Google is not capable of being the arbiter of what does and does not appear on the Web,” says a spokesperson, adding that Google generally frowns on efforts to rig search results.
Robert Russo charges corporations upward of $1,000 a month to do just that.
“All it takes is one negative link to destroy a company’s reputation,” says Russo, whose DefendMyName service tries to bump unflattering links off the first page of search results.
MySpace and Facebook say they handle complaints about derogatory postings on a case-by-case basis. The same goes for the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a federally backed project that has preserved billions of Web pages since 1996.
“A lot of things were not meant for posterity,” the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle told The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., last year.
ReputationDefender charges clients $30 to “destroy” an item posted online. Mostly, that involves sweet-talking webmasters.
Lawyers are a last resort. To alter search results, flattering Web sites sometimes must be created from scratch. Fees start at $10,000 and can climb into the hundreds of thousands.
“There’s nothing we do that you can’t do yourself,” says Michael Fertik, a Harvard Law School graduate who started ReputationDefender last year. “It’s just a matter of convenience, time and efficiency.”
Some clients just want Web searches to display their top achievements before “the lame stuff,” Fertik says.
Others aim to undo real or perceived damage. He cites a student finishing a psychiatric residency who worries that people will Google a paper he wrote about his own clinical depression. Another battle pits Fertik’s 30-person team in Silicon Valley against a forum that has posted lewd remarks about female law students.
Fertik insists he won’t lie for clients, or help crooks or cheats. He tries not to stir false hopes.
“Sometimes you’re out of luck; you’re going to have to live with it,” he says of Internet nastiness. “There is no silver bullet, no button you can push.”