Hitting Back When Hit By Google
Tuesday’s European Court of Justice decision requires internet search engines to omit listing irrelevant or inadequate items in response to searches for individuals by name. The ruling is simultaneously hailed and condemned, depending on whether one stresses individual control over reputation or anti-censorship (e.g.. Henry Farrell in WaPo; Jonathan Zittrain in NYT; the ubiquitous Brian Leiter). Two aspects of the incentive effects of the recurring problem seem overlooked, as illustrated by a true story (with minor fact changes in the name of privacy).
A few years ago, a colleague got a blistering review of his teaching from a student blog. There may have been some underlying basis for the criticism, but the post blew it all out of proportion and offered no context for the specific objection and no counterbalancing assessment of the teacher’s considerable strengths. It was both authoritative and damning as well as inadequate and of dubious relevance.
My friend’s distress intensified when this url appeared first in all searches for his name using Ask, Bing, Google, Yahoo! and other search tools. It came up ahead of the professor’s SSRN page, school biography, library bibliography, and laudatory references in numerous other urls on the web. The result magnified the post’s significance and caused my colleague anguish.
The blog publisher refused his request to take down the post, citing forum policies on open-access, autonomy, and self-regulation. At that time, at least, the search engines could not be bothered. Day after day, we’d do a search of his name and the inflammatory post kept coming up number one, threatening the professor’s reputation.
Finally overcoming his frustration, the professor chose to fight fire with fire. He created a new blog and began posting entries at a regular clip. Gradually, these posts and responses or references to them rose up the lists of hits for his name. Eventually, the objectionable link sank down the list into a more proportionate presence, there as part of a more complete portrait, not the salient bruise it started out as.
The episode also emboldened my friend to redouble his investment in teaching. Accepting the old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, he vowed to minimize the chances that such postings, however acontextual or lopsided, would reappear. His teaching evaluations, in fact, rose from just above average to well above average.
There are obviously many more significant complex issues associated with the hierarchy or presence of misleading or irrelevant information on the internet. For example, norms in Europe may differ from those in the U.S., and a ruling like that of the ECJ seems unlikely in America. And there are probably better forums to solve the problem than courthouses, including legislators, markets, and think tanks.
But in struggling with associated trade-offs and conflicting values, the incentive effects should be noted. I don’t want negative urls polluting my public persona. But that produces two positive results: I try to avoid doing anything that would feed them and to engage enough to neutralize their effects on my profile. It worked for my old friend.