Does anyone remember ‘dog shit girl’? In 2005, her dog defecated on the subway in South Korea and she refused to pick it up. Her fellow passengers offered her tissues but she got aggressive and used the tissues to wipe the dog. Outraged people took photos; within hours they were all over the web. Soon her name, age, university and other personal information were posted online. People started harassing her on the street, asking about dog shit mum and dog shit dad. Is there a dog shit baby? ‘The common excuse,’ according to Don Park, whose blog brought her to notoriety in the United States, ‘was that the girl doesn’t deserve privacy.’ She dropped out of university; if the abuse didn’t stop, she said, she would commit suicide.
Twitter didn’t exist in 2005, when dog shit girl made her name. Google was valued at a mere $52 billion (today the figure is roughly seven times that). Facebook, open only to university and high school students, had just five million users. Since then, the opportunities for online shaming have grown enormously. In 2012, when a friend of a charity worker called Lindsey Stone posted a photograph of her on Facebook raising her middle finger and pretending to yell at a ‘Silence and Respect’ sign in Arlington National Cemetery, the Twittersphere responded: ‘hope this cunt gets raped and stabbed.’ ‘Fuck You Whore,’ another user wrote. ‘I hope u die a slow painful death. U retarded cunt.’ A ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ Facebook page was created; Stone lost her job.
In 2013, just before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, Justine Sacco, who worked in PR, tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!’ During the 11-hour flight, she became the number one trending topic on Twitter. ‘No words for that horribly disgusting, racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco,’ one person tweeted. ‘Fascinated by the @JustineSacco train wreck. It’s global and she’s apparently *still on the plane*.’ A comment on Hollywood Life, from a person who had lived in Africa ‘17yrs’ yet still didn’t ‘have Aids’ deduced that ‘she clearly has the objective of coming here to open her vagina … Stupid hoe.’ Weeks later, one tweeter looked back fondly: ‘Man, remember Justine Sacco? #HasJustineLandedYet. God that was awesome. millions of people waiting for her to land.’
The word ‘cunt’ is practically a punctuation mark in these outbursts; the language of online shaming is overwhelmingly misogynistic. Women are subjected to fantasies of rape and sexual violence while men escape with character assassination. When Jonah Lehrer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, was caught fabricating quotes and recycling old material, the shaming consisted of comments like ‘save the royalties from your book, blockhead, ’cause you’re gonna need the money.’ When he tried to apologise in a speech (for which he was paid $20,000), he did it beside a live Twitter feed featuring responses like ‘Jonah Lehrer’s speech should be titled “Recognising self-deluded assholes and how to avoid them in the future”’ and ‘Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist’. But no one demanded that he get raped and stabbed. And at least he had actually done something wrong. Stone and Sacco’s jokes were intended for a group of friends who would understand the context. As Sacco told Jon Ronson, ‘Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get Aids … Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making fun of that bubble.’
In 2013, Jeffrey Rosen argued in the New Republic that the reason Twitter doesn’t take action in these cases is that it conforms to ‘the American free-speech ideal’ and has ‘explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility’. This is generous to a fault. Towards the end of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson suggests that Google could have made as much as $456,000 from the 1.2 million searches for Justine Sacco’s name in December 2013. That seems impossibly high, but Google and Twitter’s business models both rely on facilitating the flow of information, no matter what that information is; as Sam Biddle, the Gawker journalist who first shared Sacco’s tweet with the wider world, put it, ‘outrage is traffic.’
One of the services Twitter provides for misogynists and stalkers is anonymity. Amanda Hess received abuse from a Twitter account identified only as ‘headlessfemalepig’: ‘I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for “manslaughter”, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.’ This was soon followed by: ‘Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.’ Threats like this are a criminal offence – and there’s a big difference between being anonymous online and being physically untraceable – but the police rarely take action in such cases. So even though the account was suspended and the tweets deleted (they passed the ‘direct, specific threat’ test), whoever was behind the account was free to open a new one and continue to abuse and intimidate with little fear of the consequences.
Those whose anonymity is compromised can end up with a permanent internet record of out-of-character behaviour and relatively minor infractions. Search for ‘Lindsey Stone’ and the first thing you will see is the image of her making fun of the sign in Arlington Cemetery. Search for ‘Oliver Rawlings’ and the first thing you will see is an account of Mary Beard retweeting his comment, ‘You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.’ He received so much abuse that Beard ended up writing him a character reference. ‘He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,’ she said. ‘And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.’
Shaming occurs when there is a conflict between a story we want to tell about ourselves and a story that is being told about us. Sacco made a satirical joke to her friends and was cast as a racist. Rawlings’s ‘moment of madness’ could have labelled him permanently as a misogynist (Beard’s response may have made him less of one). And there are an endless number of people you’ve never heard of who once got into debt or committed a minor felony that is recorded on a webpage indexed by Google and so is the first thing you would see if you searched their names online. So what exactly should enter the public catalogue of our lives, and who gets to decide?
In 2010, Graeme Wood discovered that a former Harvard classmate, Phineas Upham, and his mother, Nancy, had been arrested for hiding $11 million in Swiss bank accounts and sneaking cash back into America. Not without schadenfreude, Wood set up a Google alert and watched as Nancy pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended sentence and a $5.5 million fine. The charges against Phineas were dropped, but Google continued to autocomplete searches for his name with ‘Phineas Upham tax’, ‘Phineas Upham arrest’ and ‘Phineas Upham indictment’. One of the most prominent search results was Bloomberg’s headline: ‘US Drops Case of Man Accused of Helping Mom Hide Money’.
Wood kept his Google alert running and noticed some strange things. Upham was appointed head finance curator of Venture Cap Monthly and named philanthropist of the month by Charity News Forum. The accolades from obscure organisations kept popping up, some of them seriously overestimating Upham’s importance by listing him alongside Ben Bernanke or Alvin Roth. Wood tracked down Venture Cap’s head office: the address was for a back entrance next to an Indian restaurant in Manhattan. He had found his way into the world of reputation management firms.
There are hundreds of these groups now. Upham had hired Metal Rabbit Media. Reputation.com is the most famous, and one of the more scrupulous; its founder, Michael Fertik, was the only person from the industry willing to talk to Ronson, who gives an account of the way Fertik’s company helped diminish the presence of Lindsey Stone’s photograph on Google, an operation it undertook pro bono but estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (the photo still appears). Wall Street executives hired reputation management firms in the wake of the financial crash. Politicians and celebrities hire them. So do paedophiles and rapists. But so do people who have been found guilty of minor misdemeanours that pop up when you Google their name and which, because everyone finds a lawyer or dentist through Google, were preventing them from getting jobs or clients.
Online reputation managers remove negative information about their clients, and even Fertik won’t give a precise description of his company’s means of doing this. ‘I can say we have codified a series of procedures that we are continually refining, and that are specific to the source, location and nature of the content we are asked to destroy,’ he said in 2006. These procedures are sure to involve relatively simple things like cleaning up the online websites in their clients’ direct control, and aggressive moves such as threatening litigation against other sites. In many cases this won’t work – large press outlets aren’t going to remove stories – so reputation managers instead try to overwhelm Google’s algorithms with positive information in order to bury more negative search results. It used to be easy. When search engines such as AltaVista ranked sites by the number of times a search term featured on them, it didn’t take much to smother negative information: just create a site that listed a name over and over again and you would force negative information down the results page. Then, in 1996, Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, invented the PageRank system, which ranks webpages based not just on their content, but also on the number and PageRank of sites that link to them. This is a much more difficult system to game, and Google’s algorithms are constantly being updated; it claims to make more than five hundred ‘search improvements’ a year, from small fixes to large changes such as personalised search and autocomplete.
Reputation management firms, as Fertik puts it, aim to give customers the ‘maximum control possible over what people view about them online – whether it’s information that they want others to see about professional history or info that they don’t want seen’. They create websites and link to them, or use sites with high PageRank like Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn, to keep control of the search results that attach to their client’s name. When they can, they’ll find ways of creating positive press coverage – or the appearance of it. That’s often impossible. At the end of last year, Greenpeace forced Lego to abandon its partnership with Shell when a video of oil engulfing a pristine Arctic Lego scene went viral online. Greenpeace’s petition attracted more than a million signatures – there isn’t a reputation management firm in the world that could push that off Google Search (only Google itself could do it). Although, even in these cases, there are ways to manage the fallout.
But only if you can pay. Even the more innocent forms of search engine optimisation and image management stretch beyond most people’s means: bills can run into the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. And of course the rich and powerful pay not just for favourable coverage but to eliminate negative stories. Many reputation management groups are quite happy to tell lies about their clients (can you be sure the Phineas Upham you found online is the one who was accused of tax evasion – or even a real person?). And the same strategies can be used to defame others. One of the documents leaked in the Snowden files, ‘The Art of Deception’, gave instructions on how government agents could discredit targets by conducting ‘false flag’ operations (posting information online and attributing it to someone else), writing blog posts purporting to be the target’s victim, changing photos on social networking sites and so on.
What are the alternatives to this manipulation? Left to its own devices, the stories Google’s algorithm would tell about us would be the ones most likely to get the searcher to click on a link or search some more. Google’s idea of the perfect search engine is one that ‘understands exactly what you mean, and gives you back exactly what you want’. If this is the goal, it was working remarkably well when Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco were trending. Everyone was having so much fun. This was exactly what they wanted, and Google and Twitter were giving it to them. The trouble is, it ignored the rights of the subject of the search.
Last May, the European Court of Justice handed down what has become known as the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling. Mario Costeja-González Googled his own name in 2009 and discovered home-foreclosure notices from 1998, when he had been in financial trouble. The notices had been published in La Vanguardia, and Costeja-González applied to have them removed on the basis that the debt and the original purpose of the notice – to attract buyers for his property – had both lapsed. The newspaper refused. He applied to Google to have the links removed, but it refused too. Eventually, he decided to challenge the decision in court.
The ECJ ruled that search engines such as Google qualified as ‘data controllers’ and that, under the EU’s 1995 Data Protection Directive, they could be asked by members of the public to remove ‘information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name’. Google has to comply with requests only if the information returned in a search is ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed’. In addition, it has to find ‘a fair balance’ between public interest and ‘the data subject’s fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data’; the company’s own economic interests were ruled not sufficient to override the effects of its search engine on these rights.
Costeja-González is now better known than ever. This is known as the Streisand Effect (in 2003 Barbra Streisand tried to suppress an aerial photograph of her house in Malibu, thus attracting more publicity to it) and it has been used as a more general argument against the viability of the right to be forgotten. But Google has so far evaluated requests to remove 840,000 URLs and accepted just over 40 per cent of them. It is unlikely that anyone will show much interest in finding out who requested the removal of data in minor cases – victims of crime, people wrongly accused of crimes, perpetrators of minor misdemeanours.
Paradoxically, the ruling has placed a great deal of power back in Google’s hands. The determination of what is in the public interest is for Google (and other search engines) to make on a case by case basis, and the company has not released any information on its decision-making process aside from a few stylised examples of successful and unsuccessful complaints, though it can be forced to defend its decisions in court. Google has been against the ruling from the start, and quickly set about undermining it. It made it known that two of the early requests had been from a paedophile and a politician. It applied the ruling only to its European sites – go to Google.com and you can find all the information that has so far been delisted. Larry Page, echoed by the Tory culture secretary, Sajid Javid, warned that the ruling would be misused by terrorists – a wilful misrepresentation from which Page has since distanced himself and which has been effectively dismissed by Google’s advisory council. He added that it would help repressive governments and, bizarrely, that it would harm internet start-ups because they would have to deal with ‘a significant new layer of regulatory complexity’ (as though that is what’s going to hamper a new search engine trying to displace Google).
The thrust of the criticism is that the right to be forgotten is an assault on the freedom of the internet. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who described it as ‘one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen’, was appointed to Google’s advisory council. Index on Censorship said that the ruling
allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight. This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books … The court’s decision … should send chills down the spine of everyone in the European Union who believes in the crucial importance of free expression and freedom of information.
It’s true that the ruling is vague, leaves too much power in private hands – not least the power to determine what’s in the public interest – and misses the fact that irrelevant information can become relevant as much as the other way round. Still, the idea that we should leave the internet as it is works very nicely for the people who already hold power there. As the technology researchers Julia Powles and Enrique Chaparro put it, the right to be forgotten is ‘the first generally accessible speed-bump on what has been an open road for Google to aggregate and proliferate publicly accessible personal information’. Is the alternative – leaving the way we appear on the internet in the hands of Google’s algorithms and reputation management firms – really a utopia of equality and free expression?
The EU recently threatened Google with legal action over its failure to delist the links removed from its European sites from searches on Google.com. Around the same time, President Obama suggested that European moves against Google were a form of protectionism: ‘We have owned the internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it in ways that they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is just designed to carve out some of their commercial interests.’ In the same interview he also said: ‘I think you own your data, I think I own my data.’ And since 2012, his administration has been trying to pass a privacy bill, which has predictably been attacked as a form of government intrusion into the private sector.
We’re entering the era of pervasive computing, underpinned by the Internet of Things. Technology will be embedded in the world around us – from wearable tech to smart houses. We got a taste of what this could mean when someone exploited a flaw in TRENDnet’s security cameras in 2012, and posted details of how to do it online. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, ‘hackers posted links to the live feeds of nearly 700 of the cameras. The feeds displayed babies asleep in their cribs, young children playing and adults going about their daily lives.’ Perhaps new technologies will spur us to find a balance between freedom of expression, privacy and personal data. It’s more likely, though, that the internet will get more and more ‘free’ – and who knows what we’ll find out about one another.