“Like an elephant, the Internet never forgets.”

April 1st, 2011

In 2008 in Omniveillance, I commented on the indelible nature of Internet blemishes. Once something is written about you on the Internet, it is virtually impossible to remove it. This permanence, a virtual scarlet letter, damages a person’s reputation, and denies him the opportunity to grow and reform.

Recording, broadcasting, and archiving a person’s actions may deny him the opportunity to grow and reform.179 Like an elephant, the Internet never forgets.180 Once an image is released, even if it is removed from a web site, it will invariably be stored forever elsewhere.181 For example, if a person is photographed entering a strip club, and he later decides to change his ways, society should at least allow him the opportunity to improve and reform. But once this image is recorded and preserved in perpetuity, the individual may  never be able to live down what could have been a single error.182 Essentially, this is a case of the tragedy of the commons. Omniveillers are able to internalize the value of the streets, buildings, and people in major American cities by relying on weak privacy torts. Meanwhile, the people who are being photographed suffer a negative externality, namely the invasion of their privacy and damage to their reputation, which they have no way of remedying.

Or as Dan Solove put it, “The Internet is bringing back the scarlet letter in digital form—an indelible record of people’s past misdeeds.”).

Today’s Times has an article titled Erasing the Digital Past that details the struggle to erase this scarlet letter. I may as well have written the first sentence:

THE Internet never forgets.

The article tells the story about people who hire professional services to eliminate any negative or undesirable stories about them on the Internet. One such service, Reputation.com founded by (fellow Judge  Boggs clerk) Michael Fertik is leading the pack:

The company he used, Reputation.com, is among a growing corps of online reputation managers that promise to make clients look better online. In an age when a person’s reputation is increasingly defined by Google, Facebook and Twitter, these services offer what is essentially an online makeover, improving how someone appears on the Internet, usually by spotlighting flattering features and concealing negative ones.

“The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too,” said Michael Fertik, the chief executive of Reputation.com, which is in Redwood City, Calif., and is among the largest in this field. “We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”

So how exactly does this service work?

Online reputation managers go further by exploiting how search engines like Google and Bing work, which is to rank Web pages based on how often they are linked from other sites. To trick the search engines, these managers employ programmers who create dummy Web sites that link to a client’s approved list of search results. The more links, the higher the approved sites rank.

They may also contact the Webmaster or blogger directly, especially with smaller sites, and ask that the specific items be removed, usually by appealing to their sense of fairness. Some sites are more challenging than others. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone.