Ever taken a look back at the statuses you made when you were 14? Your first tweets? How many drunken photos of you are lying around on the internet? Even a cursory look through the annals of your social media is enough to make you cringe.
And the speed at which these drunk images, cringe-worthy statuses and ill-thought out tweets spread is shocking. As Douglas Adams once said, “nothing moves faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws”.
The speed at which things go viral is another step up. One British woman made global news and lost her job – as well as most future job prospects – when she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white” before getting on a plane to South Africa in 2013.
By the time she got off the plane, only a few hours later, she was hounded by the world media.
Does this tweet deserve to be the first thing that comes up when you plug her name into Google for the rest of her life? Even a national hero like cricketer Glenn McGrath will never be able to escape pictures of him hunting game in Africa. But do we have a right to forget these things?
In the European Union, you do. In the first week of July, this was extended to Russia. The “right to be forgotten” was passed into legislation in 2010 in Europe, which meant European citizens could request data, images or articles be removed from search engines like Google and Yahoo.
“I can see both sides,” Derek Taylor tells me of the right to be forgotten. Taylor is the founder of Reputation Experts, Australia’s first company specialising in fixing, altering and repairing reputations online – for a price.
“I understand when you want to, say, set up a business venture and understand if the person you’re working with is shonky, but you also have the right to correct something online if it’s not right,” he says.
Not all agree. Britain’se House of Lords reported to the European Commission in 2014, “We do not believe that individuals should have a right to have links to accurate and lawfully available information about them removed, simply because they do not like what is said”.
The same goes for companies that might like to hide their past . What if BP could pay to push records of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to the third or fourth page of Google?
“Well that’s the question, isn’t it?” Linda Tirado, the American author and former viral sensation (most Australians know through her appearance on the ABC’s Q &A) . “Who is responsible for the news?”
“There are some people who deserve to have the worst thing in their lives to appear on the top of Google, like sex offenders. Hell, there are diplomats and world leaders that should have ‘genocidal fucking asshole’ on the top of Google when you search for them,” Tirado says.
Tirado went viral after a comment on Gawker discussing class systems in America attracted 20,000 emails. People online set up a fund to help her with basic medical and dental care she needed.
When the media caught wind of this, she was hounded by people online, and even news stations like CNN.
“It fucking wrecked me,” she says. “I couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t go online without panic attacks. You’re no longer in control of your own life.”
“If I didn’t have thick skin I don’t think I’d be alive today. It’s that intense. I mean I write for a living and I can’t begin to describe what going viral is like.”
Tirado went into hiding for a while before coming out with a book. She says the publicity and media interviews generated by the book pushed negative articles and reviews to the third and fourth pages of Google search results.
“We’re humans, we fall out,” Taylor says. She says people say terrible things about each other all the time, even between anonymous people who have never met. “It’s when the war goes online and is permanent it’s damaging.”
Reputation Experts get involved in the ‘war’ by trying to get good material appearing in front of the bad, not by removing the ‘offending’ comments, article or photo.
“The response of most people is to continue to slag off others. We take a totally positive approach. People are very emotional, we’re almost like reputation doctors. Forget what they’re saying, look at this instead,” Taylor says.
“We had one restaurant that had competitors saying bad things about their coffee, starting blogs and whatnot. Instead of fighting them, we invited a reviewer from the Sydney Morning Herald around to say nice things about them. Generally, the positives win.”
He says the option works much better than dealing with the courts. “The court system is so behind on this stuff. The English are the only courts with a digital section. If someone slanders you online and you sue, it’ll take ages and cost a lot of money.”
Tirado doesn’t like companies that specialise in reputations, however. Numerous companies in the US approached her when she went viral. “What got me was the price tag,” she says. “How do you say, my life will be destroyed if I don’t pay them, but they’re asking for shitloads of money.”
“The internet now is like shaming in a public square was 200 years ago. Where are the checks and balances to make sure we punish the guilty but let off the innocent? That’s the question the internet needs to answer.”