In the early to mid 1990s it was fashionable to compare the unformed, open spaces of the internet to the 19th century American West: the 'electronic frontier'. Tabloid journalists liked to call the internet lawless and uncontrolled; pioneers preferred to call it uncontrollable. Neither was entirely true. The internet has always had its central planners and those who try to circumvent them, and while it was, and is, unclear whether and how it could be completely controlled, it was always clear that governments had a legitimate interest in trying.
Since then, governments have rolled in and set up filters and communities with rules abound. Where the 'lawlessness' charge is perhaps most correct is in online crime: teenage joyriding hackers have been succeeded by a financially-motivated, highly organised underground that is largely out of the reach of law enforcement.
So to read in Wild West 2.0: How To Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Frontier about the internet as an uncontrolled wilderness where anyone can nail your reputation to a tree seems quaintly old-fashioned. If you spend a lot of time considering the difficulties posed to privacy by built-in online tracking, it's weird hear that anonymity is woven throughout its design.
At this point it's worth mentioning that the authors, Michael Fertik and David Thompson, who are the founding CEO and general counsel of the company ReputationDefender, have a business reason to promote the 'Wild West' point of view. Their start-up exists to sell products and services to enable customers to monitor their reputations, delete data about themselves from online services, control their online 'brand image' and monitor what's being said about their children. This book could be the part of their business plan that explains why there's an untapped market for their services.
To be fair, they're not entirely wrong. Lacking a court order it can be very difficult to get an ISP to do things like remove web sites or disclose users' real names and addresses. And they are also correct that someone setting out to defame someone else has a vast array of tools at their command. And only two weeks ago, at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, a panel outlined the problems Americans have with online information brokers, some of whom refuse to remove information such as a home address even when the person requesting the removal is a victim of domestic violence. Impersonation, identity fraud, hoaxes and urban legends: these are all online realities that can hurt both businesses and individuals.
It's arguable that the single biggest reputational problem most people have is the information they post voluntarily about themselves — something the book doesn't really cover in its complaints that search engines and ISPs are in general not held liable for the material they host or point to. And it's worth noting that the authors have apparently never ventured outside the US even as far as the UK, where Laurence Godfrey's libel suit against Demon Internet set a precedent for notice-and-takedown whose effects linger to this day.
Nonetheless, much of the authors' advice is sound — particularly the final chapter, which covers what to do when your reputation has been slimed.
Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier By Michael Fertik and David Thompson Amacom 264pp ISBN: 978-0814415092 £19.99