Somewhere between free-speech and privacy lies the nether world of online reputation bashing. The Washington Post reports that some online message boards have become rife with offensive content and personal attacks that can ruin reputations and be accessible forever through an Internet search.
Take the bulletin board site AutoAdmit, a law school admissions discussion board that posts rants and raves as well as helpful information on law schools and firms. Some of the posts include sexist and racist remarks including false claims about sexual activity and diseases. These statements can stay forever on the Internet, accessible thought Google and other search engines.
AutoAdmit's founder, Jarret Cohen, said the site merely provides a forum for free speech.
"I want it to be a place where people can express themselves freely, just as if they were to go to a town square and say whatever brilliant or foolish thoughts they have," Cohen said.
Since many employers use Internet searches to vet prospective employees, what exists on the Internet can be a factor on whether someone gets hired or not. Enter a new service called ReputationDefender, whose mission is to search for damaging content online and destroy it on behalf of clients.
"For many people the Internet has become a scarlet letter, an albatross," said Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender's chief executive.
Although universities have no legal grounds to act against sites like AutoAdmit because it is not operated with school resources, anonymous cyber-writers can be sued for defamation, and judges can require a Web site host or operator to disclose a user's identifying information, says Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and free speech advocacy group.
But Cohen and his partner are staunch advocates of free-speech in all its permutations.
"In fact, one finds overall a much deeper and much more mature level of insight in a community where the ugliest depths of human opinion are confronted, rather than ignored," said Cohen.
Perhaps feeling the heat of potential litigation, AutoAdmit no longer keeps identifying information on users, and posters don't use their real names, because if they did, Cohen says, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."