Your reputation is at stake whenever you go online and shoot your mouth off. Your reputation is at stake when you end up drunk and half (or fully) naked on a MySpace page. And that, my friends, is life. You're supposed to learn some lessons and move on, hopefully without disgracing yourself too badly.
But in the era of the upload-and-share, it's easier to do something that will haunt you forever. Too damned bad, because if we are going to count on one another, we have to accountable for our actions, too.
Some folks don't agree. Two stories that crossed my desk today show how history is already up for grabs, that it is rewritable and easily changed Now anyone can hire a legal attack dog to harass Web and blog publishers!by those with the resources to do so. This is why I am happy to see Jimmy Wales take some steps to confirm credentials on Wikipedia and also why I don't feel sorry for people who become virtual clowns or porn stars on MySpace. History matters, even when it is embarrassing.
eSapience, a PR firm that calls itself a "center for competition policy," is suing a former client, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, the disgraced former chairman of the insurance giant AIG, because it was not paid for its work. But what work it did, according to Clay Risen, writing in The New Republic:
Under the heading "Independent Channels" eSapience promises to "leverage our relationships with important and highly credible channels including AEI, AEI-Brookings, Hoover Institution, MIT, University of Chicago Law School and the Federalist Society, among others. These organizations will work with us to host conferences, Capitol Hill briefings (if appropriate), co-author papers, link to our Center web sites, and distribute our materials on their web sites, among other things." These organizations may or may not have known of eSapience's plans to abuse their intellectual standing. They clearly didn't get a cut of the profits.
Indeed, the really cynical aspect of the eSapience program is not that it seeks to influence opinion--after all, that's what any think tank, journal, or op-ed column seeks to do--but that it does so behind a thick veil of obfuscation and secrecy, manipulating legitimate academic endeavors to benefit a high-paying client. In the process, they not only do damage to the people they unwittingly involve in their efforts (not to mention their own academic reputations); they also do enormous damage to the very nature of academic and intellectual inquiry. Thanks to eSapience, academics and the public have reason to second-guess the conferences, authors, and papers they consume; in such a world, what's to stop free intellectual inquiry from grinding to a halt? Then again, given the radically free-market notions of eSapience's directors, perhaps they'd prefer it that way--Caveat cogitator, thinker beware.
Yet it is not just history at the grand scale, where the Hank Greenbergs battle for their "legacy" through coordinated assaults on the collective memory. ReputationDefender, a startup out of Louisville, Kentucky, is offering to work to identify your most embarrassing moments for between $9.95 and $15.95 per month. Once a problem appears, it charges $29.95 for each effort to "Destroy content."
Destroy content.... It sounds like rewriting history to me. Here's a few excerpts from the company's FAQ:
How long does it take to Destroy content?
It really depends. Sometimes less than a day. Sometimes weeks.
Can we Remove absolutely ANY content from the Internet?
No. Newspaper articles and court records are difficult to impossible to remove, and we do not seek to remove them. We focus on our clients' privacy and reputations. This means we focus on content that is slanderous, private, defamatory, invasive, and/or outdated. If we are asked by a client to target a particularly difficult site for our Destroy process, we will advise him or her that the task could be more difficult than usual, and we will immediately refund his or her Destroy fee for that item if appropriate. However, once we start on our process, we can't offer refunds or guarantees for Destroy, since our labor can be quite substantial, and this is a very hard job.
Can we Correct ANY content on the Internet?
No. The same general rules for our work to Destroy apply to our work to Correct. We are respectful of First Amendment issues. This said, if a newspaper has made a factual error in an article about or including mention of you, so long as that that this error can be demonstrated, we should be able to work with the paper to Correct the content. Once we start on our process, we can't offer refunds or guarantees for our efforts, since our labor for can be quite substantial, and this is a very hard job.
Can ReputationDefender Destroy Usenet/Usergroup Content?
It's a little harder than some other types of content, but it is often manageable.
Sure, maybe it strikes some as a good thing that anyone can have a legal attack dog tearing the history of our actions from the public record, but it leaves us without any recourse to fact when judging whether to trust one another.
The Web is a record as well as a community of communities. Deal with it.
Unfortunately, ReputationDefender has the intellectual backing of a number of respected names, including John Palfrey of Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet & Society. It will not go away as easily as it promises to destroy content on the Web.
Just because life is partly virtual these days doesn't mean it should have no consequences. Grow up, take chances and pay the price for the experience. It might curtail the behavior you'd be ashamed of if there's no recourse to Web White Out to cover your mistakes.