People are finding damaging information about themselves on the Internet, and they may not know what to do about it.
A Consumers Council of Canada research project entitled “Canadian Consumers: Online Reputations, Awareness, Misuse and Repair” investigated a recently developed, somewhat “unruly” industry still seeking to establish common professional standards and service commitments, with some participants even lacking verifiable addresses for their business operations. The report also suggests ways consumers can manage their online reputations proactively and reactively.
Among the key facts the Council learned:
- Internet users of all ages find that their friends, acquaintances, business associates or a complete stranger, innocently or not, may have posted something damaging about them online.
- This content may be an inappropriate photograph on Facebook, a person’s own emotional rant on a blog or discussion forum, or someone’s anonymous criticism.
- Lucky consumers find this bad news or history before someone else does – especially important when that someone else is a prospective employer or customer, a colleague or their mother.
- A truism has been recast: “What happens in Vegas, no longer stays in Vegas.”
- Our desire to know about others, supported by search engines like Google and Bing, is leading more people to check on other people. Services such as Facebook create significant social pressure for people to expose information about themselves and others to belong.
What can consumers who end up with an online reputation problem do?
The Council’s report presents available options, including ways to avoid creating a reputation problem or deal with one caused by others.
Several important findings resulted from the Council’s research:
- Reputation matters. Online reputation significantly affects one’s general reputation.
- A large number of people are aware of their online reputation, and the damage or the benefit it can provide, but many are not.
- There are organizations that provide online reputation management repair to individuals. Their service can be invaluable, but it is best that someone seeking this help, check the service choices diligently and compare multiple providers. The online reputation management industry is relatively young and somewhat unruly.
- Any information can be available about almost anyone and be potentially misused – intentionally or otherwise. Misuse typically comes from information being posted or used “out of context.” Damage from misused information on the Internet can be immediate, disproportionately severe and irreparable.
- Anonymity online is an issue. This is evident as Canada’s courts seek to protect two important rights of Canadians – the right to freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the right of an individual to protection from libel, slander or defamation.
- The Internet is turning consumers, as individuals, into publishers, and they need help to learn their legal responsibilities, particularly respecting libel, slander or defamation.
- Consumers need to know “removal” from the Internet is rare. Typically, when referred to by an online reputation management organization, “removal” means concealment by movement of damaging information to the second or third pages of Google or Bing search results.
- Everyone should take time now to assess their online reputation and how they contribute to the reputation of others, and then determine action they should take about what they discover.
The research evaluated representative products and/or services made available to Canadian consumers to manage or repair their online reputation. Ten organizations were evaluated on a non-invasive, non-intrusive basis. In many cases the efforts of the organizations themselves and their uses of Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing techniques and website material, were examined as a way to get material directly from them objectively.
Consumers Council of Canada received funding from Industry Canada’s Contribution Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations. The views expressed in this report are not necessarily those of Industry Canada or of the Government of Canada.