Hogan Lovells

Hogan Lovells

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Controlling Your Reputation in a
World that Holds No Secrets

by Chris Wolf

With Marcy Wilder, I co-chair the Hogan Lovells Privacy and Information Management practice, where Privacy Professor Dan Solove is a Senior Privacy Advisor.  Dan recently wrote a book recently entitled The Future of Reputation in which he observes:

An entire generation is growing up in a very different world, one where people will accumulate detailed records beginning with childhood that will stay with them for life wherever they go. . . . The Internet is bringing back the scarlet letter in digital form—an indelible record of people’s past misdeeds.

My friend (and fellow member of an Internet hate task force), Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, made this more dire observation in a recent talk at Yale University:

[O]nline crowds can destroy the privacy and reputations of individuals, particularly women. Social networking sites and blogs have recently become breeding grounds for anonymous groups that attack women with lies, threats of sexual violence, and damaging photographs. In response, some women have gone offline or assumed gender-neutral pseudonyms. Because search engines reproduce the attacks, the online reputations of targeted women are repeatedly battered. (emphasis supplied)

So, what is an individual to do?

In Europe, policymakers are considering a so-called “Right to Be Forgotten” that would allow people to demand removal of online content about them they find objectionable (even if true and accurate).  Such a broad right would never pass muster under the First Amendment here in the United States.  And, it is unlikely that as a practical matter, anyone can remove all the things that affect them negatively found online. 

But even if the problem of damaging online information is too big to completely conquer, either in the EU or the US, what can you do to protect your reputation online?  Here are some concrete steps:

1.      Exercise discretion.  When posting to Facebook, YouTube or the like, think about whether what you are posting may be misused, or misconstrued by others (such as prospective employers).  When in doubt, don’t post.  And don’t post about or tag others if there is a chance what you are doing might embarrass them.

2.      Use privacy controls.  Facebook, Google+ and other social networking sites have rolled-out focused privacy controls that let you determine who sees what.  Learn how to use the controls, and use them.

3.      Opt-out.  More and more, sites that collect and use information about you provide opportunities to opt out of such collection and use.  Find the opt out tools and use them.

4.      Contact the online service.  Often, web sites and social media sites have Terms of Service prohibiting certain offensive content.  If you see something about yourself that violates a term of service, let the web site know and request a take down.  That may get the content removed.  (And if it is removed, contact Google and Bing and ask them to remove it from their cache.)

5.      Use a service if necessary.  The prominence or proliferation of negative information about you may be more than you can address on your own.  There are services available, such as Reputation.com, that can help you deal with the problem in an organized, systematic way.

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