Internet reputation management
Internet reputation management has arisen out of growing incidents of on-line defamation and harassment.
“Envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness” Bertrand Russell
Introduction to Internet reputation management
In 1996 there was a rumour on the Internet that Tommy Hilfiger, the clothing designer, had said “If I had known that African Americans, Hispanics and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice.” The rumour also had Mr Hilfiger confirming the statement on the Oprah Winfrey show. It later transpired that Mr Hilfiger had never even been on the Oprah Winfrey Show. This was confirmed by Ms Winfrey on live television when she said “I`ve never even met Tommy Hilfiger.” Tommy Hilfiger’s reputation and sales undoubtedly suffered from this rumour. The tension between freedom of speech and the protection of privacy and reputation has reached tipping point. A rumour and gossip epidemic on the Internet continues to spread widely and extensively without any or any effective control. Infact some people have turned the spreading of pernicious rumours on the Internet into a commercial opportunity and even this is going on unchecked.
Everybody is a publisher
Blogs, chat rooms and discussion groups are empowerment tools but they are now the most dangerous challenge to our values of protection of reputation and privacy today. In an instant anyone can publish their opinions on virtually any topic anonymously, which may be viewed by billions of people within days. This is a fantastic development in social communication if used with care. The ability to exchange opinions with others about different experiences is without doubt a powerful tool to benefit consumers and to prevent danger to the public. To name and shame ensures that providers of goods and services will be incentivized to behave within the law or get their house in order if they do not want to be exposed as charlatans or as being incompetent. However there is a dark and sinister side to this new found power. Perhaps most disturbing of all are the anonymous, permanent and viral dimensions that are specific to the Web.
Internet reputation management and the right to be forgotten
Once a statement or report gets posted on the Web it may be there forever and can easily replicate itself. There is a statute of limitations for almost every transgression. In the United States there is still a double jeopardy law. However on the Internet misdemeanours or mistakes will remain forever. To compound the grotesque unfairness of this much of the information on the Internet is gossip and rumour. Some will brush aside the importance of web postings on the basis that nobody takes postings on the Internet seriously. They could not be more wrong. Serious damage is being done to peoples’ lives by online bullying and harassment. Online bullying has caused the vulnerable to take their own lives several times.
Posting the other side of the story
Some say that errors can be corrected by spreading correct information as quickly as possible to counter the negative publicity. This is also wrong. If the truth about something is widely known and clear, then possibly introducing correct information might limit the damage. What happens when the information is partly true and partly false and the false part is the damaging aspect? What about if the facts are true but are private? What about if the person posting the review is not even a client at all, but an attention seeker, or a person with a personal grudge? The Internet has put the power in the hands of people to disproportionately damage the reputation of an individual or a business for the most trivial of reasons if they choose to do so.
This is what is wrong with the ethos of websites like the notorious US website in Tempe, Arizona with whom the writer has a personal run-in. In my view, any attempt to tell another side of the story only drives more traffic to an errant website which exacerbates the problem (note that I have not referred to the website by name for that exact reason). Most users simply note the damaging web page title and move on. In our impatient world users simply flee any negative reviews. Most users wouldn’t bother to take the time to investigate the review.
Internet reputation management and proportionality
To take an authoritarian approach to solve the problem would not be proportionate. Free speech supports the autonomy of the citizen, democracy and the free circulation of ideas. However protecting privacy and reputation also supports the same values. Every popular movement, revolution or renaissance in history has been based on the ability of the key figures to keep their secrets, ideas and individual autonomy. Initially unpopular ideas must be expressed in secret until they hit critical mass. Privacy also protects democratic debate, discussion and the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the mob.
The main argument used by those who use free speech as an excuse to make money out of others posting malicious gossip and comments on the Internet is that the public have a right to know the truth. However what they post is not always the truth further if it is true it may be useless truth. The fact that such and such likes bowler hats as opposed to trilbys is a completely useless fact that the public does not need to know about. This is the case even if that person had said previously that they preferred trilbys.
The ability to protect reputation and privacy are arguably two of the most important values in any society. Society needs more incentives to hold themselves to a high standard of behaviour not less. If you work hard to earn a good reputation and it can be sullied without consequence by any person due to envy or a grudge, where is the incentive to strive to be better?
A good reputation survives human mortality. How true the words of Joseph Hall when he says “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.” In my opinion, there are some that are arguably using the Internet to erode civilised society’s values of good behaviour, reputation and privacy under the false pretext of protecting the public and free speech. It is my submission that people who enable others or act by themselves to gratuitously insult and disparage others, spread malicious gossip and subjective unbalanced opinions appear to be at epidemic proportions on the Internet. It’s partly because some people think behaving badly on the Internet is somehow more acceptable. This must not become the status quo. If this libertarian approach towards regulation of the Internet continues it would be perilous for all of us including those responsible for the antisocial behaviour.
Please see our other articles on: Internet Lawyers