Haunted by a revealing photograph from your drink-mad office party posted on Facebook? Berated by an ex-lover on a blog posting? Or is your business being skewered online by a vindictive customer? Then Gary Powers is waiting to hear from you. He can help.
In the modern digital age where seemingly everything and everyone is online, a new industry is emerging to “manage” the internet footprint that people and businesses leave online. “Reputation managers” can clean up and shape a person’s online history: burying the damaging stuff and promoting the good.
Given the numbers of famous people who arguably are in need of such a service, and the millions of others leaving an online footprint around the world every day, the potential market is dazzling.
Kate Moss is already rumoured to be using online brand reputation management to make sure Google searchers come to positive stories first. By contrast, due to recent online leakings of abusive rants about his ex-girlfriend, actor Mel Gibson’s fourth result on a Google search is a negative gossip story.
The same goes for Paris Hilton, the socialite and heiress. The fifth result on a Google search for her brings up disputed claims that customs officers in Corsica had found marijuana in her purse and had briefly detained her. A good reputation manager might be able to push that story down Hilton’s Google results chain. Lindsay Lohan, currently in jail, is famed for use of her Twitter account where she frequently sends out ill-advised updates. A reputation manager could help to suppress those Tweets or even try to get them deleted.
Powers, who works for a US company called Reputation Defender, is paid to help promote the positive, hide the negative and even have hostile internet postings removed altogether. Fees vary across the industry. For $15 a month, Reputation Defender will work with a client to clean up and monitor their internet reputation. They can also send you an alert whenever a new reference to your child is posted anywhere online. For $30, you can subscribe to a service that will try to destroy hostile internet content. In 2008 the firm raised $2,6-million in investment funding.
“We get people from all walks of life,” said Powers, the company’s “head writer”. People who come to the firm for assistance range from professionals, like lawyers or doctors, to those involved in the entertainment industry; anyone who is concerned that someone, somewhere, might search for them online.
Increasingly the results of a Google search can affect the most important elements of people’s lives. A recent Microsoft study showed that 78% of job recruiters conducted internet searches on their clients in order to check out their backgrounds. Experts say that the huge growth of the internet has in effect created a “permanent memory” online that can be searched by anyone. Embarrassing statements, and photographs, or angry attacks by spiteful ex-friends once faded away. But no longer. Anyone can be judged forever on a moment of madness or bad luck.
There are now many firms offering help in keeping people’s online history safe. They include companies and websites like Online Reputation Manager, Reputation Professor and Reputation Management Partners. It is an industry that has arisen almost overnight. Reputation Defender was founded in 2006 and now employs dozens of people from its base in Redwood City, California. David Thompson, chief privacy officer at Reputation Defender, sees the sector as involved in an “arms race” with web developments that erode people’s privacy. “If they are building a better gun, we are building a better bullet-proof vest,” he said.
Some developments can be potentially scary. Facial recognition software will allow the internet to recognise — and make potentially searchable — any photograph in which someone appears, even if only in the background (say at a riot, protest or orgy). Experts warn that everything we do on the internet can be collected and collated digitally. All that information is tracked, gathered and used by marketers who then build up a detailed profile of the consumer.
Professor Joseph Turow, of the University of Pennsylvania, believes this “unknown reputation” that everyone has will eventually lead to people having very different experiences online. “People will be defined by marketers in ways they know nothing about, and this is a process that is getting bigger and bigger,” Turow said.
Turow spoke in front of the US Senate last week appealing for government regulation. “Most people do not have a clue this is going on. They don’t even know they have a reputation online that is being used in this way,” Turow said.
Eventually, experts predict, millions will employ someone to manage the traces they leave, perhaps even those who work in reputation management.
Does Powers employ someone to manage his own online history? Not yet. Instead he cuts the problem off at the source, trying not to leave a trace in the first place. “I have a very low profile. I kind of like that,” he said. – guardian.co.uk