The radio ads chill the soul of any small businessperson. A fictional dentist, describing a billing dispute between his practice and a single customer, bemoans his fate after discovering that his disgruntled patient has posted a negative “review” of the dentist online. Paid Actor, DDS, doesn’t know what he’s going to do: His referrals have stopped, his word of mouth has gone silent, and his phone has stopped ringing. When all seems lost, the listener is told that there is hope, in the form of something called “Reputation Defender.”
The site claims that it can help you “remove, at your request, inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful and slanderous information about you and your family using our proprietary in-house methodology.” Just what that “in-house methodology” might be is not clear. When confronted with slander or libel online, one’s recourse is pretty much to sue or don’t. This isn’t so much a methodology as a legal reality. The problem described in the advertisements, however, is a real one. Anyone can say anything about anybody online.
The proliferation of online reviews is both blessing and curse. Product reviews at Amazon.com can help you decide if you wish to buy a book you’ve never read – but those same reviews often become platforms for arguing personal agendas, as ratings for material the readers haven’t even seen are posted as protest (or support) for the work of the author. If you take to the Internet to research the purchase of a piece of new electronic equipment – perhaps a new DVD player – you’ll find yourself confronted with negative reviews for every single product you consider, while balancing these against some postings that directly contradict the others. In the process, you’ll learn a great deal about which companies “suck,” which authors don’t know what they’re talking about and which consumer goods you simply can’t live without. Some of this information will even be true.
What’s more, there are sites online that present reviews as if they represent professional pronouncements rather than random and anonymous (to you) opinions. Take, for example, Ripoff Report. The site apes the appearance of a consumer-reporting watchdog site. Read the fine print, however, and you’ll discover that Ripoff Report makes absolutely no attempt to verify its content, which is posted by random Web denizens. Those who register with the site simply click an acknowledgment that what they are saying is supposed to be true. They can then post whatever they like, for whatever reason, and no verification of their statements will be attempted. In looking for information on Ripoff Report, I found another site declaring the first one an elaborate extortion scheme. We are, all of us, only a search term away from public defamation.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt knows only too well that you have no privacy in an age when the Internet pervades and informs everything you do and everyone you know. According to Network World, the head of the Web’s most potentially evil, intergalactic, all-seeing Eye of Sauron search engine (still reeling from ongoing accusations concerning its illegal collection of wifi data during its invasive Google Earth trawling) said “many creepy things about privacy” at something called the “Techonomy Conference.” Specifically, Schmidt proclaimed that the future of the Web is the complete lack of the anonymity. It’s simply too dangerous for you to be anonymous, he says, and governments will “demand” you be identifiable.
Schmidt upset a lot of people with his remarks, as he so often does when he speaks in public. This man, who has no regard for your privacy, previously blackballed reporters from CNET after CNET used Google to publish personal information about Schmidt. The popular technology site was making a point – and so was Schmidt. In the latter’s case, Eric Schmidt was haughtily declaring, “Do as I say, not as I do.” He was also reminding us that technology today exposes everything we do and say, for good or for ill.
Remember, too, that once something is on the Internet, it’s there forever. The Internet Archive, aka “The Wayback Machine,” can produce past verions of websites that have long since been changed or even deleted. It describes itself as “a 501(c)(3) nonprofit [that] is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars and the general public.” If you have a personal website, enter its URL at the Internet Archive. You’ll be able to revisit its earliest versions … and then you’ll realize that anyone else can, too, no matter how much you’d like the past to remain the past.
The great irony to all of this, however, is that even as the Internet and the technology of our day robs us of anonymity and creates a permanent public record of our statements, it enables falsity. It facilitates the propagation of lies and, holding hands with our litigious society’s byzantine framework of regulations, protects the liars from exposure despite the fact that their own public words could otherwise condemn them.
Speak out against anyone or anything online and it is only a matter of time before someone at least threatens to sue you. As expensive as legal action can become, this is no idle threat, even if it comes from someone who has no real case. You can be bludgeoned into silence by our legal system simply because our technologically saturated society, overall, tolerates falsity. Even as it confronts us with our words from years ago, casting our opinions and our contradictions in stark relief, it shields us from the rightful consequences thereof by allowing us to bully any who might attempt to use that information.
Every one of us must take responsibility for what we say online. We must choose our words with care, and we must understand the stakes. Ultimately, what you choose to believe is a function of your ability to reason. What you choose to support as true or decry as false, however, must and always will be a function of your courage.