Press Room

The Boston Globe: Your Online Story, Told Your Way

Is there a right to be forgotten? Forget about it.

Because of a court ruling last week in Luxembourg, Europeans can get embarrassing personal data removed from Internet search services. But it seems unlikely the United States would follow suit — that pesky First Amendment, you know. So your most humiliating online moments will always be a Google search away.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make it hard to find that old story about the barroom brawl back in college. Google and other search services won’t erase this information, but they’ll help you keep it under wraps. By taking control of your Internet identity, you can push the good stuff about yourself onto the first page of a Google search and shove the brawl story to page 8, or 85, where hardly anybody will notice.

The practice of online stain removal is called “reputation management.” Dozens of companies offer the service to individuals and businesses who spend thousands of dollars a month protecting their digital good names. You and I can manage on a lot less. Indeed, a lot of the best reputation management moves will cost you nothing.

Google’s first page of “Hiawatha Bray” search results is innocent stuff, but you never know. Perhaps I’ll be accused of plagiarism some day — falsely, of course. Or maybe I’ll find myself on an elevator with Beyonce’s sister Solange. Either way, I’ve learned enough about reputation management to put up a pretty good fight.

The first rule of online self-defense is obvious enough: Avoid doing stupid things in public. You never know who’s watching, and posting.

Here’s the second rule: Make a name for yourself. Some people think they’re safe if they stay off the Internet.

Instead, this creates a reputational vacuum where others can define you — your friends or your enemies.

So sign up for the biggest and best-known social media services — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus. And use your real name, not a nickname or pseudonym.

It’s also worth spending a little money to turn your name into an Internet address, like hiawathabray.com, and set up a personal website. It’s cheap; Webs.com, for instance, can set you up with your own website for $30 a year.

Internet search engines give personal websites and social media high rankings in their results, so people who go looking for you are more likely to see these pages first. And of course, you control what is written on them.

So don’t post things you might come to regret.

Instead, publish lots of interesting but harmless personal information on each page.

Include a photo, a simple biography, information about your interests and hobbies. Again, the more information on your various pages, the higher they’ll rank in a Web search.

Google and other search services also give higher rankings to pages that link to other sites on the same topic.

So make sure that all your various online haunts are linked to each other. Put your LinkedIn link on Facebook and your Twitter link on your personal domain page.

How often do you need to update all these pages? More is better. If you’re starting out with a healthy reputation, you can get by with fresh postings every now and then. But you may have to become more aggressive in posting new, positive stuff if you face a sudden surge of bad online publicity.

By the way, Google makes it easy to track what people are saying about you. Just set up a Google Alert, a service that searches for new postings on any topic, then sends you an e-mail heads-up. Go to google.com/alert and create an alert for your name to get pinged whenever you’re mentioned somewhere on the great wide Web.

If it all seems like too much work, BrandYourself.com offers a free service that will help you preserve your online image and takes only an hour or so.

There’s also ReputationDefender, which charges as little as $100 a year to keep your online records clean.

The company’s chief executive, Michael Fertik, said some clients with serious reputation woes pay up to $10,000 a month. For that, the company provides constant monitoring of your name, careful tailoring of your personal Internet sites to boost them in the search engine rankings, and — according to Fertik — secret algorithms that can fine-tune a client’s online image in ways that go beyond the reputational basics.

I have no way to judge whether Fertik’s secret formulas do a decent job of buffing your digital history.

Luckily, few people need to find out. With a little effort and not much expense, most of us can defend our own reputations.

The Internet won’t forget. But what it remembers is mostly up to you.

Original article: http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/05/21/your-online-story-told-your-way/alcCxLMMPQZcvk7dDE81yH/story.html




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The New York Times: European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web


Europe’s highest court said on Tuesday that people had the right to influence what the world could learn about them through online searches, a ruling that rejected long-established notions about the free flow of information on the Internet.

A search engine like Google should allow online users to be “forgotten” after a certain time by erasing links to web pages unless there are “particular reasons” not to, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg said.

The decision underlined the power of search companies to retrieve controversial information while simultaneously placing sharp limits on their ability to do so. It raised the possibility that a Google search could become as cheery — and as one-sided — as a Facebook profile or an About.me page.

Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard, said those who were determined to shape their online personas could in essence have veto power over what they wanted people to know.  “Some will see this as corrupting,” he said. “Others will see it as purifying. I think it’s a bad solution to a very real problem, which is that everything is now on our permanent records.”

In some ways, the court is trying to erase the last 25 years, when people learned to routinely check out online every potential suitor, partner or friend. Under the court’s ruling, information would still exist on websites, court documents and online archives of newspapers, but people would not necessarily know it was there. The decision cannot be appealed.

In the United States, the court’s ruling would clash with the First Amendment. But the decision heightens a growing uneasiness everywhere over the Internet’s ability to persistently define people against their will.

“More and more Internet users want a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of predigital days,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Young people, in particular, do not want their drunken pictures to follow them for the next 30 years. “If you’re always tied to the past, it’s difficult to grow, to change,” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger said. “Do we want to go into a world where we largely undo forgetting?”

The court said search engines were not simply dumb pipes, but played an active role as data “controllers,” and must be held accountable for the links they provide. Search engines could be compelled to remove links to certain pages, it said, “even when the publication in itself on those pages is lawful.”

The court also said that a search engine “as a general rule” should place the right to privacy over the right of the public to find information.

Left unclarified was exactly what history remains relevant. Should a businessman be able to expunge a link to his bankruptcy a decade ago? Could a would-be politician get a drunken-driving arrest removed by calling it a youthful folly?

The burden of fulfilling the court’s directives will fall largely on Google, which is by far the dominant search engine in Europe. It has more than 90 percent of the search business in France and Germany.

Google said in a statement that the ruling was “disappointing” and that the company was “very surprised” it differed so much from a preliminary verdict last year that was largely in its favor.

The decision leaves many questions unanswered. Among them is whether information would be dropped only on Google sites in individual countries, or whether it would be also erased from Google.com. Even as Europe has largely erased its internal physical borders, the ruling could impose digital borders.

Another open question is how much effort a search engine should reasonably spend investigating complaints.

“I expect the default action by search engines will be to take down information,” said Orla Lynskey, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics.

A trade group for information technology companies said the court’s decision posed a threat to free expression.

“This ruling opens the door to large-scale private censorship in Europe,” said James Waterworth, the head of the Brussels office for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Facebook, Microsoft and Google among its members. “While the ruling likely means to offer protections, our concern is it could also be misused by politicians or others with something to hide.”

That view was echoed by Big Brother Watch, a London-based civil liberties group that was perhaps the first to invoke the specter of Orwell.

“The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history,” said Emma Carr, the organization’s acting director.

Mr. Mayer-Schönberger, the author of “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” said such concerns were overblown. He said the court was simply affirming what had been standard European practice.

Relatively few people in Europe have had issues with wanting to delete information on the Internet, Mr. Mayer-Schönberger said. “I don’t think this will lead to the end of the Internet as we know it.”

Michael Fertik is chief executive of ReputationDefender, which helps people improve their search results into something they find less objectionable.

“For the first time, human dignity will get the same treatment online as copyright,” Mr. Fertik said. “It will be protected under the law. That’s a huge deal.”

The only loser, he said, was Google. “It no longer gets to profit from your misery.”

And perhaps ReputationDefender. “This ruling is not necessarily favorable for my business,” he said.

Those who worry that many people might use the ruling to erase information that is detrimental but is unquestionedly accurate may find support in the case that began it.

The case started in 2009 when Mario Costeja, a Spanish lawyer, complained that entering his name in Google led to legal notices dating to 1998 in an online version of a Spanish newspaper that detailed his debts and the forced sale of his property.

Mr. Costeja said the debt issues had been resolved many years earlier and were no longer relevant. So he asked the newspaper that had published the information, La Vanguardia, to remove the notices and Google to expunge the links. When they refused, Mr. Costeja complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that his rights to the protection of his personal data were being violated.

The Spanish authority ordered Google to remove the links in July 2010, but it did not impose any order on La Vanguardia. Google challenged the order, and the National High Court of Spain referred the case to the European court.

Mr. Costeja’s lawyer, Joaquín Muñoz, said Tuesday’s ruling was a victory not only for his client, but for all Europeans. “The fundamental point is that consumers will now know what the rules of the game are and how to defend their rights,” he said.

Original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/technology/google-should-erase-web-links-to-some-personal-data-europes-highest-court-says.html?hp


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