In 2003, Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman to try to force him to remove an aerial photo of her beachfront house from a public photo collection Adelman said was chronicling beach erosion in California. Suddenly, an obscure house on a shoreline jammed with rich people's homes was highlighted all over the Web, along with the story of how Streisand was leaning on Adelman.
Her attempt at intimidation detonated right under her manicured fingernails. Streisand lost three ways. Her $50 million suit was dismissed, the picture of her house was broadcast further than it ever would have been had she just left the situation alone, and her name was attached to the process: It's now known as the "Streisand effect."
A similar thing happens when a Web site says something that appears to be damaging to a company or individual. The aggrieved party takes the matter to a lawyer, who does what lawyers have done for generations-send a nasty letter. But today, the letter itself is likely to turn up on the site, too, along with the original material, this time accompanied by mockery and a statement or two about the First Amendment.
Sometimes, the lawyer can get a restraining order, or can coerce the Web site's hosting company to drop the site altogether. But then if the battle is notorious enough, or if it involves someone famous or reviled enough, dozens or hundreds of other sites can pick up the material, too, far more than anyone could afford to fight. Even if the complainant wins, he usually looks like a playground bully publicly and legally punching out the lonely little nerd, with the outrageous connivance of the principal and all the teachers.
As a writer, blogger and businessperson, I have to admit to being conflicted over this issue. The Web has the ability to spread gossip and lies with unprecedented reach, speed and durability. Offensive pictures or writing can sometimes be expunged from one site only to reappear again and again, like a SARS outbreak. Yet, as a society, we believe so strongly in personal expression that we've built the principle into our very first amendment to the Constitution. The Web is nothing if not personal expression on a scale that would astonish even the populist Thomas Jefferson.
Today's Streisands have options besides lawyers. There are companies that will monitor the Web, including obscure corners like message boards, for references to individuals or organizations. It's called "online reputation management." One such is Reputation Defender (www.reputationdefender.com). It bills itself as being very good at ferreting out offending content for its paying clients, but it goes further and claims to be able to remove incorrect or upsetting content, and all for about $16 per month. It claims a removal service called "Destroy" that is supposed to remove pejorative Web content, but what it can do is limited, both by cost and by the nature of the Web.
You can ask nicely that certain things be changed or taken down, but beyond that, the only recourse is the courtroom, and we've seen what can happen then. Even issuing the takedown request might trigger a Streisand moment. At this writing, the Reputation Defender site is in test mode and doesn't list a phone number. For most of us, registering our names or our corporate identifiers for free with Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts) will do much the same job. I'm notified anytime Google finds a new reference online to "Tim Altom," for example.
Other companies are more sophisticated, and costlier. Many, like Quirk (www.quirk.biz), come to online reputation management from the PR world, and they use a different tack. Aware of the Streisand effect, Quirk rarely takes on the offending site directly, but instead maneuvers around the site with favorable mentions elsewhere. This tends to move the negative references downward in search engine results, making it much less likely they'll be seen.
If you'd rather do it yourself, there are many sites that explain how to troll for references online, and how to bolster your image without taking on miscreants in full-frontal attacks. For example, SEO-Space, a blog that specializes in search engine affairs (seospace.blogspot.com), has a multi-part series on online reputation management in 2007, focusing mostly on how to optimize your own Web site to counter bad publicity that might rise to the top of a search. Other sites, such as the Sempo Institute (www.sempo.org), advocate taking an even more aggressive strategy of establishing a credible presence on blogs (your own or others), networking sites and the like, so that when negatives pop up, they can be countered quickly.
You may never need to worry about brand-trashing online, but my recommendation is to get over to Google Alerts right away and put in your company name and the names of your key officers. If nothing else, it's nice to know who's talking about you.
Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.