Delete Your Bad Web Rep
November 7, 2006
The mistakes you make on the internet can live forever -- unless you hire somebody to clean up after you.
A new startup, ReputationDefender [ http://www.reputationdefender.com/ ], will act on your behalf by contacting data hosting services and requesting the removal of any materials that threaten your good social standing. Any web citizen willing to pay ReputationDefender's modest service fees can ask the company to seek and destroy embarrassing office party photos, blog posts detailing casual drug use or saucy comments on social networking profiles.
The company produces monthly reports on its clients' online identities for a cost of $10 to $16 per month, depending on the length of the contract. The client can request the removal of any material on the report for a charge of $30 per instance.
Michael Fertik and his partners originally conceived of ReputationDefender as a way for parents to protect their children from potentially damaging postings to social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.
"I don't like the idea that kids and teenagers might suffer lifelong harm because of momentary mistakes," says Fertik.
Using both site-scraping robots and good old-fashioned human detective skills, ReputationDefender promises to scour the internet -- particularly social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Xanga and Flickr -- for materials that could threaten the author's employability once he reaches the professional world and its army of Google-savvy hiring managers.
According to CareerBuilder.com, 26 percent of hiring managers say they have used search engines to research potential employees, and one in 10 has looked on a social networking website.
After launching the site, Fertik quickly realized that ReputationDefender would appeal to a broader market than just minors and students.
"It seemed natural that adults might want the service, too," he says. "We all make honest mistakes, and there's no reason the internet should make those mistakes eternally hurtful to ourselves and others."
Fertik draws an analogy between ReputationDefender and consumer credit reports. "It's useful to have your credit monitored and to be on top of your credit score before there's ever a problem," he says. "It's the same way with personal reputation. In the internet era, everyone needs to know what's being said about him or her -- or his or her child -- before it's too late."
ReputationDefender breaks its services into three categories: "My Reputation," which is aimed at adults hoping to track down and eliminate those momentary lapses of reason; "My Child," for parents who want to protect their children from errors of youth that may come back to haunt them later in life; and "My Privacy," which helps to remove a client's data from the web's various data-brokering websites that store private information such as Social Security and driver's license numbers, home addresses and phone numbers.
The first two services are offered on the company's site now, but My Privacy is not yet publicly available.
ReputationDefender's advisory board includes a former presidential campaign speech writer, a law professor at Harvard and an MIT graduate. Fertik, a graduate of Harvard Law School, concedes there are some types of content that are almost impossible for his company to remove.
"Some clients and prospective clients would like us to get news articles in major publications or court records removed from the internet," Fertik says. "We've had to tell them that these requests are extremely difficult to fulfill and sometimes impossible."
In such cases, ReputationDefender offers its clients a full refund.
Fertik declined to offer an exact description of his company's means of removing content. "I can say we have codified a series of procedures that we are continually refining," he says, "and that are specific to the source, location and nature of the content we are asked to destroy."
If you're a website owner and ReputationDefender knocks on your door, you are not legally bound to remove anything until a judge orders you to -- a scenario that most website owners are keen to avoid.
"Most people will take materials down just to avoid the hassle of dealing with possible litigation," says Susan Crawford, an associate professor at Cardozo Law School who specializes in cyberlaw and telecommunications law.
"If the letter is sufficiently threatening," says Crawford, "the threaten-ee could bring his or her own lawsuit seeking a declaration that what they posted wasn't unlawful. But, again, most people will just buckle rather than fight back."
Fertik says that ReputationDefender is sensitive to First Amendment issues, so there is a line that the company will not cross when asking websites to remove material its clients consider damaging.
"We are not too keen on the idea of squelching genuinely newsworthy speech," he says.