Do you need a Web publicist?
'Identity managers' act as agents, lawyers, enablers – and enforcers – for lives lived increasingly online.
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ClaimID users create a directory of links to information about themselves on the Internet, a system much like the one used by del.icio.us, an online bookmarking service.Skip to next paragraph
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Clients can also add descriptions of these entries. The John Smith who's running in the local marathon, for example, may not be the same John Smith who was arrested after breaking into the local jewelry store. Stutzman says people need to be proactive about making such distinctions.
Naymz (www.naymz.com), a Chicago-based service launched in June, is much like a personal PR service. Naymz users, a few thousand so far, create a profile and link to various other resources that exist about them – a blog, a photo page, or their social networking profile. Because the service is based around the name of the user, search engines will begin pushing the profile page toward the top of their results list.
Cofounder Nolan Bayliss estimates that 90 percent of users will see their Naymz profile within the first three to four search results. If you want to make sure of that, you can pay Naymz and get a sponsored link at the top of search results on Google, Yahoo, and MSN. (Search for "Nolan Bayliss" online, and you'll see.)
Now that's self-promotion.
ReputationDefender (www.reputationdefender.com) takes a more aggressive tack. CEO Michael Fertik, a Harvard Law School graduate, says he was disturbed to see young people suffering from momentary lapses in judgment, sophomoric weekend indiscretions that ended up online as text or pictures and that might later hurt their chances of landing a job. "Who you are when you are 17 is not necessarily who you want to be when you're 30," Mr. Fertik says.
So, if you don't like the information that exists about yourself online, Fertik's company can search for it and try to destroy it. For a monthly fee (starting at $10), ReputationDefender scours the Web for content about a client and presents a report. For an extra fee, the client can request that some of the information be removed.
Fertik won't reveal the procedures the company uses, but he says they are all legal. They reflect technical expertise and the relationships ReputationDefender has developed. One possible way is simply asking the owner of a website to remove the objectionable information.
"It's half art, half science," Fertik says. "There is no magical button to destroy things."
The service doesn't target news articles, court documents, or other public records, but Fertik says the company has removed content everywhere from blogs to government sites.
Fertik says that ReputationDefender won't help felons erase their records, but it will help clients if they've been criticized on a blog, even if that criticism is valid (being tagged as an unreliable online seller, for instance). Legal action against sites that refuse to remove information is a last resort – and an extra charge.
To Ms. Rosen of the Ethics and Policy Center, efforts to polish a person's online image sound like "airbrushing photos of Stalin" and erasing parts of cyberhistory. Her concern with the more promotion-oriented services is the impact on expectations about who we should be. In the past, Rosen quips, there were certain social rules about appearing in a newspaper. Unless it was a marriage or death notice, your presence in the public eye was suspicious. Today, it's suspicious if you Google somebody and they don't come up.
It's revealing that none of the companies claims to have found a silver bullet, but they all hope to become part of a conversation on the rights and responsibilities of individuals in a growing virtual world.
McGeveran says he understands how online identity management services could help some, but adds that it's we who have revealed most of what is out there in the first place. "The safest way to get the cat back in the bag is to not let it out in the first place," he says.
That sounds easier said than done. This story, for example, just added to the Internet record of eight people.
Online identity is a broad term with several meanings in the Internet world. For this story, it refers to the sum of information available online about an individual. Identity is also used to describe virtual personas and avatars in online multiplayer games like Second Life. Software companies use the term to describe an added layer of protection that helps them to verify your financial transactions on the Internet.