In this day and age, the events of our lives are almost entirely lived out online. Our childhood bubble baths with our siblings, our awkward homecoming photos, our cruise to Jamaica where we got our hair braided into cornrows — all our fondest memories documented and available for the public’s viewing pleasure. But this digital display isn’t limited to our happiest memories. The darkest corners of our past can also be plastered across the web, such as scandalous Facebook photos from your time at the frat house, mug shots for that little DUI, or nudes that your ex so kindly shared.
Enter reputation management, a surprising new online field that has recently emerged in order to protect people’s lives from unraveling at the posting of an unfavorable photo. While these services are offered with honorable intentions, the industry has recently been shifting its practices to more of an ethical gray area — corporations are now exploiting these companies to bury negative customer reviews and cover up shady business dealings. This brings up an important question: is it morally corrupt for companies to tamper with Google search results? And do we want to live in a world where private industries have the power to control speech on the Internet?
At an average cost of between $5,000 and $20,000 per month, a reputation manager will alter search engine results on your behalf. So how exactly do they do that? The companies are well aware that Google won’t take down material simply because someone says it defamatory, so many create roundabout ways of burying the results instead of having them outright eliminated.
Let’s use CetaPhil as our hypothetical example. Recently, the remarkably popular face wash company has faced the viral circulation of an unfavorable article alleging its ingredients are unsafe and essentially equate to a toxic sludge. To ensure that those who Google search their brand name don’t discover this negative article, Cetaphil might hire a reputation management company. The managers may write positive PR articles, launch new websites to promote those articles, post fake reviews, draft biased Wikipedia pages, and plaster positive comments all over blogs or sites like Reddit. They can then ensure these fluff pieces dominate the first few pages of Google search results, successfully burying the unfavorable article behind them. Because everyone knows if it doesn’t show up on the first page of Google, it essentially doesn’t exist.
However, this “burying” of ugly search results isn’t the approach every company uses. One reputation management company was not content to simply push the results further back; they sought to offer their clients complete obliteration of the unwanted web pages. Their intricate scheme to delete search results acknowledges that Google won’t remove US web pages without a court order claiming the sites are defamatory, so the company creates fake lawsuits suing fake defendants for libel. The company then tells Google there is a court order to remove the content in question, Google complies, and the web site disappears. Unsurprisingly, this devious plot was never used for wholesome purposes. Dozens of instances have been discovered that eliminated news stories or blog posts about shady business practices or sexual assault.
In a recent New York Magazine profile on reputation management, a reporter chronicled her discovery of insanely expensive “black ops” techniques used to hide unflattering Google results. In the article, the author uncovered the ploy of her super-rich classmate, who spent nearly $300,000 on the creation of 33 fake websites to conceal online reports of his criminal activity.
Yet many reputation management companies do draw ethical lines in the sand. John Vachalek, CEO of Webolutions, a reputation management firm based out of Centennial, CO told Rooster Magazine that his company “ensures that its clients deserve a good reputation before offering to help them achieve one online.”
Reputation X, based out of Santa Barbara, CA claims it has refused services to people who have perpetrated violence against women or children, people who are clearly a menace to society, people with judgements for sexual assault, and evil people and corrupt companies.
In Europe, even evil people and corrupt companies have the right to clean up their ugly search results. The European Union’s “right to be forgotten” law allows citizens much more control over the content revealed when their name or business is searched on Google. As of May 2015, EU citizens have the right to request Google search results be removed if they reveal “private information” that is deemed inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive in a case-by-case assessment. In the court case that determined the ruling, The Court of Justice of the European Union found that the fundamental right to privacy is greater than the public interest in access to information. The law applies only to the Google pages of nations within the European Union, such as Google.fr for France or Google.it for Italy. The United States’ version, Google.com, remains unaffected by “right to be forgotten” deletions.
That’s because in the eyes of American citizens, our first amendment right to freedom of speech trumps the right to privacy. Since no such “right to be forgotten” law exists in the US, if American individuals or businesses want to purge search results, they may be shit out of luck.
However, the American system of preserving search results is not necessarily a more ethical one, and in some cases it facilitates the fucked-up practices of blackmail web sites. These sites host damaging materials like mug shots or revenge porn, and tell people that the only way to get them erased is to pay for a removal service. For example, MyEx.com, a notorious revenge porn website, sends the victims who request to have their photos removed to a company called Reputation Guard. Reputation Guard charges just under $500 to “minimize the visibility” of your nude photos. The company offers to get your photos off the first page of Google search results for your name, but cannot promise to remove them entirely.
The same blackmail practices exist to remove mug shots from for-profit websites like Mugshots, BustedMugshots, and JustMugshots. There are between 60 million and 100 million people in the US with criminal records, and that’s counting only convictions. Thanks to the internet, an image of an arrest, regardless of if you were never found guilty or if the charges were dropped, can follow you for the rest of your life.
While the power to influence Google search results may fall in an ethical gray area, our stance on the issue can only be black or white. Do you support freedom of speech, and believe individuals and corporations shouldn’t have the ability to alter the information we can access on the internet? Or do you support freedom of privacy, “the right to be forgotten,” and believe those with dark pasts deserve exoneration?
Go ahead, choose one.