Bring integrity to the Internet

There aren't many options when your name is soiled on the Internet.

In this brave new online world of user-generated content, people are entitled not only to their own opinion, but to their own blogs and websites, tens of thousands of them crawling out of the ooze daily, climbing up Google's rankings, linking to one another and bringing their content to a screen near you.

Most of this stuff is harmless. Some of it is truly breathtaking. There is real power in the fingertips of people who only 10 years ago wouldn't have had much of a voice past their front porch. But increasingly, online words and images are causing dismay and real damage for other people who never wanted to be in the public spotlight, much less one that's accessible 24/7.

Today, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can post defamatory statements to the Web in a matter of seconds. The fact-checking apparatus and journalistic integrity standards that once provided a healthy buffer and filter between words and a wide audience have come crashing down.

Beware what appears in its place. The First Amendment gives people without integrity on the Web tremendous power, too. We need to develop an awareness among Internet users of the importance of acting with honesty and in good faith.

I spent seven years as a dean of students at an independent school in Philadelphia. I've watched fights break out, friends break up, and parents appear at my door, in tears, all over some nonsense posted online about their child that they were virtually powerless to remove.

Megasites like MySpace and Facebook have clear policies, but their rules invariably have more bark than bite. There is no telephone number to call. Sometimes days go by before the webmaster responds, usually in an unsigned e-mail. And even then there's often a catch.

Your child's anguish may not trump someone else's First Amendment rights.

Principals have more leverage, but they are busy people. Sometimes the parents of a scared or depressed child can get the principal to invite the posters of the offending material and their parents into the office for a conversation. This often results in the deletion of the material in question; that is, if the posters aren't anonymous, or from another school.

You don't have to be a teen to be adversely affected by the confluence of powerful new communication tools and average people using those tools with the intent to do harm.

Right now I am in the midst of an inane conflict with a webmaster of a high-traffic site who refuses to remove an offensive blog about me that is laden with epithets and defamatory statements.

It was all fun and games until the content of the blog was brought up during a recent job interview. Could it be that the interviewers took Google's search results – literally, the high ranking of the Web page in question – as evidence of some kind of merit?

The Internet, led by the pervasive power of Google's ranking system, has become an extension of your résumé. And here's the real kicker: When thwarted by a webmaster who refuses to give ground, an average citizen can have a very hard time getting links that lead to offensive material off the first page of Google's search results.

The problem with the Internet is not that there are too many writers. It's that there aren't enough gatekeepers with integrity, and there is no clear and consistent way to resolve disputes. Graffiti on the street can be erased or painted over. The critical and sometimes harsh opinions in newspapers and magazines undergo careful scrutiny by editors who get paid, in part, for knowing the legal definition of libel and how to avoid it. The text and images on today's websites are not always vetted properly. In some cases, they are not vetted at all.

This is yet another reason to lament the dark clouds that have formed over the newspaper industry.

The only kind of text-based information that gets removed from searches immediately by Google are social security numbers and credit card numbers. Just about everything else is fair game and food for the machine.

Google may need to consider the loopholes in its "do no harm" mantra.

The lure of the Web is powerful in large part because of its lack of accountability. But that lack, combined with questionable integrity, tilts that power onto a path we should not continue down.

What little control individuals have boils down to several unreliable options: Plead with the blogger or webmaster for mercy. Remind him or her of the real effects words can have on real people. Be cautious. Don't be surprised if what you write in an e-mail ends up on a website. Ask the website's host company to investigate the offensive material (sometimes the host will shut down a site if its content violates the host's "terms and conditions"). Contact the advertisers on the website in question, and complain. As a last resort, hire a lawyer.

It would be nice if popular bloggers and webmasters of high-traffic sites joined professional associations, pursued continuing education credits, and pledged to uphold a code of ethics.

Some schools are starting to teach net etiquette and online citizenship. Some bullies, however, never grow up; for them, the online world is one giant playground.

For the rest of us, our real power is our moral high ground. Unfortunately, integrity can't be searched.

Mark Franek is a member of Cabrini College's English department in Radnor, Pa., and former dean of students at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.

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