The boom in social networking, blogging and forums on the internet has opened the stage for the average person to create change in the way we perceive companies, people, and products. For most people and businesses this can be a way to share great new services, products, and ideas. It also can be a recipe for disaster when somebody uses the web to ruin the reputation of someone else through defamatory and libel comments, or takes on a company for defective product, or poor services. Brent Franson of ReputationDefender.com discusses the state of art in protecting your personal and business identity on the web and the reasons you should stay vigilant on how you are perceived on today's internet law program.
- Name and address information, past address information, social security numbers, date of birth information, and next of kin information can be used in nefarious ways.
- People have lost jobs, clients, personal relationships, and more due to online slander and defamation of character.
- Internet defamation; the publication of a false or defamatory statements made on the Internet, can damage to your reputation, personal relationships and cause you to lose your job.
- Businesses have lost massive amounts of money and clients due to web defamation, internet libel, and slander, and/or unfavorable commentary on the web.
Announcer: Welcome to Defamation Law Radio. Internet defamation is as easy to perpetuate as a blog post or forum comment. Your online reputation is measured by the website’s return as Google search results. Do you know what people are saying in writing about you? This program is brought to you by Traverse Defamation Law. Internet defamation lawyers with frontline experience handling online slander and libel cases for clients like you. Contact Traverse Legal today and find out how to protect your online reputation.
Damien Allen: Good afternoon and welcome to Defamation Law Radio. My name is Damien Allen, and joining me on the phone is Mr. Brent Franson, Senior Director of Advanced Client Solutions for ReputationDefender.com. Brent’s also the president of the Online Representation Management Association. Good afternoon Brent and welcome to the program.
Brent Franson: Thank you, Damien. Good to be here.
Damien Allen: It’s a pleasure to have you today, sir. What is ReputationDefender and how did the company get started, Brent?
Brent Franson: ReputationDefender is an online reputation management and privacy company. We are headquartered in Redwood City, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. The company was started in 2006 by our CEO and our founder, Michael Fertik. He was clerking for a federal judge in Kentucky, and during his work there he really saw the need for a company to protect and help individuals manage the way they’re represented on the web, manage the information that’s available about them on the web. He is a law graduate, and the initial thought was that this would be a company for parents to use on behalf of their children. As the company got some feet under it and as it evolved, we saw that this was really something that everybody needed. And while we provide the service for parents on behalf of their children – it’s a service called MyChild – it’s been something that used much more heavily by professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, executives, to help them understand the information that’s available about them on the web and then to control that information.
Damien Allen: What causes somebody to need a company like this?
Brent Franson: That’s a good question. Basically, as the internet and information is proliferated on the internet, the laws have not kept pace. So, I will say that I am not a lawyer, but that does not change the fact that the laws have not kept pace with the speed at which the internet has evolved, and so, whether it’s name and address information, whether it’s somebody or colleagues or persons that you’ve worked with, speaking about you on the web, as an individual at the company you do not have a lot of control of this information. What we have done is that we’ve developed technology, we’ve developed partnerships, we’ve developed strategies to help our clients understand what’s available about them on the web and then control it. This is something that we see people lose jobs, people lose clients, people lose personal relationships, you might not get a date, you might not make a new friend because of information that’s available on the web, and we want to help control that and be protected from that.
Damien Allen: Well, is that the case that just anybody can go online and find out anything about you? Has it come to that point where your life is an open book?
Brent Franson: It’s getting to that point, yes, certainly. I mean, on most people, if you know what you’re doing on the web, you can find name and address information, you can find past address information, in many cases, you can find social security numbers, you can find date of birth information, next of kin information, and a lot of that information can be used in nefarious ways. On that same token, a lot of the conversations that have typically been very personal conversations are finding their way onto the web. You’re gossiping about a neighbor that you might not get along with. You might be speaking about a contentious business relationship on the web, and that’s something that will show up at the top of search results and create an unfair representation of somebody on the web, an unfair first impression of somebody on the web. There’s certainly more and more information that’s finding its way onto the web. It’s very inexpensive to keep data and to host data on the web, and as we see through the YouTubes, the Facebooks, and the MySpaces of the world that the offline reality of people’s lives is being posted to the web more and more regularly and with greater and greater volume.
Damien Allen: There may be somebody that knows me peripherally or knows me personally, we’ve had conversations in the past, they’ve decided that they’re going to blog about something that we talked about that may or may not have happened, they’re just writing down on their MySpace or their Facebook something that makes them marginally interesting that people will come and read but they’ve said something that may or may not be true, something that I personally don’t want the world to know or something that I may have not even done. What does a company like yours do to protect my reputation or someone else’s reputation has something similar to them, If somebody says something defamatory about them, or gives out information that shouldn’t be given out?
Brent Franson: It depends on the relationship you have with this person. In many cases in which our customers are coming to us asking us to help them to remove content that they do not like being posted on the web, that’s kind of the first topic of discussion is what’s the relationship with this person. In most cases, it’s not very good, and so this individual is not going to be all that receptive to removal requests. So, we’ve got a service in which we help our client’s remove content. It’s not a technical service; it’s a service in which we work with the various controllers of content to have the items removed. In a case like this, the poster is probably not going to be all that likely to remove the content and you actually run the risk of them creating more content about the fact that you’re trying to remove it, and they might write additional content about the original negative content that they posted. So, in many cases, when it comes to unwelcome content such as that, we work to control where it appears rather than whether or not it appears. We’ve got a service called MyEdge that works to change what search engines believe is relevant about you. So, if this is something that is showing up on the first page in your search results as part of your online first impression, we work to change what’s relevant. We push up pre-existing positive and neutral content, we create and publish third person biographical content in such a way that you’re able to push all of the good content, the positive, the relevant, the accurate content up to the top, and you’re able to flush down any unwelcome material. I think that’s the unfortunate reality of this type of issue is that you do not have a lot of recourse in terms of trying to have this content removed, and so it becomes a question of solving it technically and really controlling where it appears. The attention span of a searcher is very, very short. So 85% of people do not search beyond the first page, 99% of people do not search beyond the second page. So, in most of these cases, it becomes a question of controlling where it appears, and that’s a service we provide to a lot of businesses and a lot of professionals, people who are really affected by searches for their own name; these are doctors, lawyers, executives, are the primary users of this service.
Damien Allen: Now, besides MyEdge, you also have three other flagship products MyReputation, MyChild and MyPrivacy. How are these being used to help out the general public or the professional person in the online world?
Brent Franson: Certainly. Each of our products meets a different need as it relates to managing your reputation on the web. Our MyReputation service is a general monitoring service. We are providing a report on a monthly basis to our clients of everywhere their name is appearing on the web; this is in the general web. It’s what you would see in search results and what you would see outside of search results. We do a lot of indexing of what’s called the invisible web, web that is not accessible to search engines. We provide that in a report, and we give you the ability to look at it in a lot of different ways. We’re going to be calling out negative information, and you’re able to look at it graphically from 30,000 feet to say, “Hey, how do I look on the web? Is it primarily blog posts, is it primarily newspaper articles, and is it primarily profile sites like LinkedIn?” We give you the ability to look at it in a lot of different ways in a really interesting interface that’s got a lot of graphs and pie charts. Now, the second service, MyPrivacy, is one that’s really working to help you control name, address, phone number information on the web, that sensitive personal information. We go into these large databases that house this information, the data brokers that really aggregate this information and then they sell it to marketers and they make it accessible for people who may or may not have good intentions, such as identity thieves. We go find that information, and then we remove it, and we do that on a monthly basis. We’ve got an exclusive relationship with the direct marketing association which allows us to remove from their member databases that reduces unsolicited mail to your regular mailbox, to your email box. That’s really about controlling name and address information that’s stored in these large databases. And then again, MyEdge is just controlling the way you’re represented on the web. MyChild is a version of MyReputation for children. Parents buy that on behalf of their children to understand what they are doing on the web. It’s very similar to MyReputation, just focused towards children.
Damien Allen: Now, is this something that helps with cases of cyberbullying or somebody doing a smear campaign on MySpace?
Brent Franson: Yes, certainly. The first part of the battle is understanding what’s going on. So, in a lot of the cases of cyberbullying, and we recently saw this at a school here in the States where the bullying was happening in person and it was happening on the web, and very unfortunately and sadly it ended up in suicide. The biggest problem with this case, and as we see in other cases, is the faculty and the parents were not aware of what was going on, and they were not able to take the steps to stop it. The students were aware. It was very brutal what was going on to this young girl. It was very, very harsh. But when they look back on it, the biggest issue was that they were not aware of what was going on, and we see that in a lot of different cases. So, it’s really important that parents just know what’s going on. They’ll be able to see that information, they’ll be able to see whether or not their son or daughter is being bullied, and then they can take steps to mitigate the effect of that harsh treatment within the lives of their child.
Damien Allen: With so many new forums opening up with the internet expanding, social media, third party places where you can voice an opinion about a product or person or just an idea of whether it’s political or social, and the amount of anonymous postings, how successful are services like yours in quelling problems?
Brent Franson: We’re very successful in cases…and again, it goes back to the fact that the attention span of searcher is very short. So if you’re being unfairly treated on the web, if somebody is providing an unfair review of you or your service on the web and it’s showing up in search results, we’ve really perfected the science of mitigating the visibility of that content and making sure that the honest, accurate information is at the top. Now, if you’re somebody that deserves the unwelcome content that you’re getting, that becomes a different story, and it’s really about working, in our case, with companies on ways that they can change the way they conduct business to better please their customers and their clients. A good example of this, and I think it’s really businesses are having to change the way that they treat their customers in a lot of different ways, is a recent case with United Airlines. United Airlines has a guy…they break his guitar, right? They’re throwing it around on the runway, whatever it is, the guitar gets broken. He goes to United and says, hey, you broke my guitar, I’d like you to pay for it. It’s $1,500 or whatever it was, and they basically ignore him. They say, No, we’re not going to replace your guitar, for whatever reason, we don’t care. This guy goes on YouTube, he creates a catchy little video, it gains a lot of steam, it gets a lot page juice, it ends up costing United millions of dollars in the drop of its stock price. I think over $100 million. And so, I think the moral of the story here is, and I think it’s something that businesses and individuals need to really consider moving forward because the power of the consumer is so much greater than it’s ever been, is that it’s not about not making mistakes. United is going to break guitars, they’re going to lose luggage, and consumers are okay with that. It’s when you ignore the problem. The mistake of United in this case is not breaking the guitar; it’s ignoring the problem once the customer brings it to his attention. And it’s something that they should’ve admitted the wrongdoing and giving him the $1,500 instead of ignoring him and paying the $150 million in stock price. Businesses really need to start evaluating the way that they treat their customers because consumers have so much more power now. You can break a guy’s guitar, and a big company like United can lose $100 million. I think that that’s a really good conversation that’s beginning to start is, hey, what are we doing here? How are we listening to customers? How are we responding to issues that customers bring up? Because it’s not like it was, you know, twenty years ago; the guys just out of luck! United doesn’t pay for the guitar, and that’s how it’s going to be. They’re the big company, and he’s the small consumer.
Damien Allen: What are some of the things that the general user of the internet company’s personal people can do besides hire a reputation company to help protect them from things like this?
Brent Franson: As individuals, you know, I think the important piece of this right now is you want to start having a say in the way you’re represented on the web. The web is going to say something about you whether you like it or not. Your search results are going to say something about you, these various databases that house this name and address information, they’re going to say something about you. The option to not exist on the web is not an option that’s available. And so, it’s really about beginning the process of putting some of yourself on the web in a very safe way and starting to be a part of that conversation and have a say in what the web says about you. You want to do this carefully, and you want to do it tastefully, whether it’s through the use of tools like LinkedIn, whether it’s through having your own personal website, whether it’s through some of the other tools that allow you to create and publish information about yourself without that information being risky, without other people being able to post it or other people being able to tag pictures of you. We encourage our clients to be very careful with services like Facebook and MySpace where you might get personal pictures, information on the web that might not be great for an employer to see. We encourage you to be careful with those, but you want to start having a say in the conversation. You want to make sure that the accurate, honest material about the reality of who you are as a professional, that you control some of that information on the web, and that you’re disseminating it in such a way that it’s showing up in search results, and the use of services like LinkedIn is a great example of that.
Damien Allen: As we’ve said in the onset of this interview, the laws were not keeping up with the boom of the internet and the changing technologies. Are we seeing a change in the laws? Are they starting to catch up to what’s going on?
Brent Franson: Yeah, a little bit. Generally, the law that’s governing a lot of, at least, the anonymous information that is posted on these various sites, the Communications and Decency Act, that is still very much the law of the land in a lot of this. Basically what that Act says, and specifically section 230 of that Act says, is that the host of content is not culpable, they’re not liable for what individual posters…what somebody might come and post let’s say on a review site like a Yelp or like there’s different doctor sites like a Rate MD, that rate MDs, or that Yelp is not actually responsible for any content that’s posted on their site and that it’s actually the individual poster who is responsible. The issues in these cases, is that the individuals are often anonymous. And so, that’s really where a lot of the problems stem from here is that there’s nobody to hold liable when you don’t know who the individual posting the content is or when you can’t prove who the individual is. And so, the discussions are certainly going on, and this is something that’s very much a topic in law schools, and this is a subject that’s very much a topic more and more for individuals and companies that end up being affected by this and realize that they don’t have a lot of recourse. And so, the ball is in motion, it’s not where it should be, the laws are not changing drastically yet.
Damien Allen: Are there any trends that you’re seeing in terms of attack, defamation and slander and such on the web? Is it increasing? It is decreasing?
Brent Franson: I would say that it’s increasing simply because more and more people are beginning to understand and are beginning to utilize the various services that review and discuss businesses, discuss different products and discuss individuals. One of the trends we’re seeing is there are more and more sites popping up that are basically individual review sites where you can go on and post anonymous content, reviewing individuals in the same way you might review a business. So, your next door neighbor Sally Johnson is on a review site. You like her or you don’t like her, and you can go online and post a review on her in a place where those reviews are aggregated for everybody to see. We are certainly seeing more and more of this. And as we continue to move forward, we’re just seeing it trend more and more towards everybody in the U.S., and eventually abroad, being a microbrand and having to consider yourself a microbrand and very much having to manage that brand in the same way that companies have in the past; really being cognizant of the information that publicly available for you and, how that information looks and the reality of yourself that you really want to portray. Information is far too easy to access, and it’s becoming easier and easier for individuals to go and publish information about other individuals. We’re really seeing a trend towards everybody kind of being a brand, and then those brands being measurable, and this being something that using technology and software you can really look at and get a sense of how somebody is represented in the world. What is their reputation score, so to speak, and you can aggregate that information and really look at somebody and provide some metrics on their personal brand, even if it is just Sally Johnson your neighbor who works down at the local CVS. And so, we are certainly seeing more and more information like that. We’re seeing this trend toward individuals just talking about each other more and more on the web, and those discussions either being a positive thing in the lives of these individuals or in many cases, a very, very negative thing. Being somebody that’s on the frontlines of this and really seeing how this can affect people’s lives in very, very negative ways every single day, we always recommend, and I can’t recommend strongly enough, that you begin the process of having a say in how you’re represented on the web and starting to control some of the information that appears about you on the web, because if it goes unchecked, it really, really can get out of control, and it can get out of control in such a way that it could very much hurt you professionally, hurt you personally, and it’s something that we see end up in…whether it’s just hurting business or whether it ends up in very tragic circumstances sometimes. You’ll want to begin to have a say, and you’ll want to begin to control some of the content that’s available about you on the web. It’s far too easy to access. It will be your first impression, your search results will be your resume and they will be your first impression. If they’re not now, it’s only a matter of time.
Damien Allen: Thank you very much for joining us today, Brent.
Brent Franson: No problem.
Damien Allen: We’ve been speaking with Brent Franson the Senior Director of Advanced Client Solutions at ReputationDefender.com. You’ve been listening to Defamation Law Radio. My name is Damien Allen. Everybody have a great afternoon.
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Our expert attorneys can help you understand Internet defamation law. Internet defamation is the publication of a false or defamatory statement on the Internet that causes damage to the target’s reputation. Defamation can occur in many forms and in many places on the Internet, such as on product review websites, on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, or on personal websites. Internet defamation can also be known by its common law names Internet slander and Internet libel. If you have been defamed on the Internet and wish to sue for defamation, contact one of our Internet defamation lawyers today toll free at 866.936.7447.
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