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Net Users Try to Elude the Google Grasp
July 25, 2002 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Net Users Try to Elude the Google Grasp (NYT) "The Internet, which was supposed to usher in an era of limitless information, is leading some people to restrict the information that they make available about themselves."
posted by dayvin (41 comments total)

 
It's good to see this story being covered at last as it's something that many of us have, undoubtedly, been aware of for some time. When I meet people, I often try to find out whatever I can about them from Google. There's no law against it, and it can be very useful to have information upfront, although shoving it in their face is somewhat rude.

Of couse, this just reinforces the obvious fact that you shouldn't be publishing anything under your name that you wouldn't want people to know about you. I mean *slaps cheeks* it's just obvious.
posted by wackybrit at 7:31 AM on July 25, 2002


This is why I scrubbed my metafilter user page and my whois information recently. I don't want nosy people digging into my life.
posted by Irontom at 7:41 AM on July 25, 2002


Does Billy Maulana know about this?
posted by crunchland at 7:50 AM on July 25, 2002


I feel for the woman who is hounded by someone posting crap under her name. Of course, she does have the option to bury it. She can send that page's Google ranking for her name down by putting up more heavily weighted pages of things she'd actually want people to find on her. Is that low-level Google tampering? Or is that self protection?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:19 AM on July 25, 2002


Doh. I'm like, shocked and laughing at the same time. On the one hand, "Omigod I'm mentioned in the NYTimes, I gotta call my family they'll be so amazed..." (and right after that "oh it's not such a big huge deal").

Then I think "Well, any advantage I had to changing my name to be more anonymous is now *completely blown* since my former married name and my current name are linked in the _friggin_New_York_Times_!!!".

Oh well. I didn't do anything *too* terribly embarrassing online that can be traced to me. And now I have the domain name that consists of my first and last name, so I pretty much threw the whole anonymity idea away.

But still.

Anyway, I'm chuckling. Gotta go call my mom...
posted by beth at 8:29 AM on July 25, 2002


Beth, that was you. I thought I recognized the name. Of course, given the subject of the article, that's completely ironic.

Back when I had a web presence in '96 or so, I was contacted by one of the handful of "other" Jonathan Perskys in the U.S. He sent me a picture of a screenshot he took of winning Super Mario Bros for the purposes of sending it to Nintendo Power magazine. My first thought: "How dorky." My second thought: "Wait.. I've written letters to Nintendo Power before.."
posted by PrinceValium at 8:38 AM on July 25, 2002


For what it's worth, I'm planning to do a section on the "other Beth Roberts's" on my website, to link to them (if they want a link). Several of them have emailed me, just to say "hey, we have the same name!".

I figure it's the decent thing to do, since I just happened to be lucky the domain wasn't taken when I went looking.

I was going to say a lot more when the author of that piece interviewed me (over the phone, me being on my cell and about to enter a no-coverage area), but she didn't call me back. I figure she figured she had as much info as she wanted/needed or whatever. Shrug.

And interestingly, she contacted me because she saw my comments on metafilter about changing my name to be more anonymous. (at least partly, anyway - there were other reasons too)
posted by beth at 8:48 AM on July 25, 2002


I looked up my name on Google for the first time, and find that I share my full name with a famous serial rapist/murderer who writes creepy poetry. Maybe this is good news...my info should remain fairly well hidden in the plethora of news stories/search results about this guy. (I'm conveniently gay, so no women will freak out about it.)

Of course, there's also a cute college football player with my name. A receiver, just like me!
posted by troybob at 9:16 AM on July 25, 2002


This is why I scrubbed my metafilter user page and my whois information recently. I don't want nosy people digging into my life.

If I had a more uncommon name and people I wanted to avoid, I would care, but I really don't right now. You could probably write a biography about me on Google not by using my real name but my username, which I use practically everywhere.

The Google cache can be really annoying though, especially when you want to remove confidential information from your website, people can still see it. This is especially a problem for information sensitive organizations (like where I work). I'll be told to delete something from a webpage and then later they're wondering why they can still find it in Google. ::sigh::
posted by insomnyuk at 9:21 AM on July 25, 2002


I sometime pretend that I'm this Richard Horsman. Makes people think I'm all British and media-y.

(I don't really)

A brief mention here is pretty much all there is of the "real" me on the web. Kinda sad.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:26 AM on July 25, 2002


But why put private information on a Web page in the first place?

If you want to do that, then make sure you're using robots.txt or the right meta tags. Alternatively, limit sensitive information to those with certain cookies/logged in etc.
posted by wackybrit at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2002


What, exactly, is the harm in someone knowing something about you?

And furthermore, if you're not willing to put your real name on something you say, is it really worth saying? For example, two sources are quoted lamenting that they're afraid to sign petitions now, whereas before they felt free to do so with impunity. Isn't that a good thing? If you want to make a political statement, shouldn't you be accountable for it?

(The best is the quote from the former free-wheeling petition signer who says, "The fact I have to think about this really does show we live in a system of thought control." As if political statements he didn't bother to think about had some genuine value that had now been lost -- not to mention that he is still completely and entirely free to make those statements; there's simply now a chance he'll have to defend them as his own.)

I can only understand this kind of concern about privacy when it comes to sensitive information about a person's past -- victims of crimes or trauma, for example. But that kind of information shouldn't be released online or in other permanent public media anyway.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:38 AM on July 25, 2002


If you want to do that, then make sure you're using robots.txt or the right meta tags.

As I understand it, there is nothing to force a spider to adhere to the commands in robot.txt. or in metatags. It is largely a consideration that the programmer adds. So that alone won't guarantee a webapge won't be indexed. Better to realize that anything one does online is done out in the public.
posted by piskycritter at 9:42 AM on July 25, 2002


I don't try to be too anonymous around here, so like mattpfeff and PinkStainlessTail I'll share my real name - on googling for myself, I was amused to find that apparently I was recently made President of the National Basketball Development League. Too bad I wasn't made "Commissioner" of it.
posted by yhbc at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2002


If you want to make a political statement, shouldn't you be accountable for it?

If you want to make a political statement, shouldn't you have the right to insist that the statement be evaluated on the merits of the statement itself, and not on the person making it?

(Hint: the U.S. Supreme Court answers this in the affirmative.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:54 AM on July 25, 2002


And furthermore, if you're not willing to put your real name on something you say, is it really worth saying?

yes. for example, anonymous tips to police about criminal activity. my brother once worked for an organization that dealt with an anonymous tip hotline for people living in a low-income housing project, and he said that before then, police would knock on the door of the informant when they got there. there remains a horrible stigma against letting police know who it is giving the tip: the anonymous service is pretty well needed.
posted by moz at 9:56 AM on July 25, 2002


But why put private information on a Web page in the first place?

Most of what people are putting online is not *private* information, but social information that is acceptable in particular contexts. Google collapses all notion of context. When you present yourself in public, you present yourself to the notion of the public that is watching you - the people, the space, the time... You assume that your presence is ephemeral, that the most that information will leak will be in the form of gossip.

Online, Google collapses the contexts. What you present in MeFi is collapsed with what you present in alt.fan.britney is collapsed with your work resume. People don't know how to operate when all of those contexts get collapsed.

This isn't private data, as much as public data for a particular environment. [And i'm uber excited to see this article as this is the topic of my thesis...]
posted by zegooober at 9:58 AM on July 25, 2002


What, exactly, is the harm in someone knowing something about you?

Tell this to the gay kid whose parents find their coming out story online. Or the trans woman who is trying really hard to figure out how to manage her identity and loses her job because of a post to soc.support.transgendered from 1992.

People are mean. Not everything about you is appropriate for the world. Your views must be shaped to the context you're working with. I'm guessing you would rephrase yourself differently in synagogue than in a pub. Of course, it all depends on how high of a self-monitor you are.
posted by zegooober at 10:03 AM on July 25, 2002


It's pretty trivial to set up a pseudonym for more sensitive stuff, really.

Then, later on, you can tell your trusted inner circle about it if you want to. Of course, you can still get burned if a former friend turns on you and tries to use that info against you, but you may be able to deny that it was really you...
posted by beth at 10:04 AM on July 25, 2002


It's pretty trivial to set up a pseudonym for more sensitive stuff, really.

But psuedonyms are only a temporary bandaid that can easily be destroyed. Companies *want* to collapse the different identities, even if the public does not. Hell, they are certainly trying to make it mandatory to have only one login. They pay big money to try to collapse information based on IP addresses and email addresses, for marketing purposes. And while it's not here right now, how long until they can collapse pseudonyms based on common language patterns? Remember, in 1985, Usenet users didn't expect Deja. We are producing all this data about ourselves and have no idea how it will be used 15 years ago, but it's not going away and we don't have the rights over our posts.
posted by zegooober at 10:29 AM on July 25, 2002


If you want to make a political statement, shouldn't you have the right to insist that the statement be evaluated on the merits of the statement itself, and not on the person making it?

Right -- but publishing a certain political viewpoint is different from signing your name in support of one. (I was too general in my wording; sorry about that.) Either you're willing to petition for something (i.e., say that you, yourself, whoever you are and whatever your name is, are in favor of it) or you're not. If you're only willing to say something if no one else will hear it, are you really willing to say it?

yes. for example, anonymous tips to police about criminal activity.

I agree, this is an important exception -- albeit one concerning statements that shouldn't be made public under any circumstances. (Again, I was too general in my phrasing....)

Tell this to the gay kid whose parents find their coming out story online.

This is also is the sort of thing that shouldn't be published in a public forum (except under a pseudonym, as beth observes). I'm just talking about everyday stuff, which the article definitely indicates people are worried about. (As for big corporations collecting data on online identities, obviously, if you can't trust a private website, you shouldn't release sensitive information of that nature there.)
posted by mattpfeff at 10:39 AM on July 25, 2002


Mattpfeff: clearly not gay.

gay kids talking to other gay kids about being gay is one of the best uses of the internet. And it's vitally important to their development, many times.
posted by captain obvious at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2002


Most of what people are putting online is not *private* information, but social information that is acceptable in particular contexts.

This may be what a lot of people think, but it's a mistaken notion. I realized at least 9 years ago (when deciding whether to use my real name on Usenet) that anything you do on the internet other than private e-mail is the same as publishing. Gotta remember the "world-wide" in World Wide Web is not just a marketing slogan.

It's easier for me to sympathise with people who are not online but have personal info available online that they weren't aware of.
posted by straight at 11:29 AM on July 25, 2002


One of the reasons I use my real name for almost everything I do online is because it gives me control over what appears when someone Googles me.

Instead of getting random pages of work I did for clients, or some rambling rant I wrote in college, they get MyName.com, with content I control. I think it's a much more effective way to maintain privacy than hoping nothing ever gets published or posted about you.
posted by anildash at 11:41 AM on July 25, 2002


It's easier for me to sympathise with people who are not online but have personal info available online that they weren't aware of.

My mom emailed me about a web site that lets you find out people's addresses and other information. It was a little freaky at first, but I realized all that stuff is public records, and its being online just makes accessing the info more convenient. It's still publicly available anyway.

I don't try too hard to hide my identity online--shoot, my name is part of my MetaFilter name--and my address and phone number are on my web site because I figure anyone who wants to get those would be able to get it anyway. The only drawback is that I have the same name as a semi-famous gospel singer, and his fans sometimes call me or send me personal letters.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:55 AM on July 25, 2002


I have quite a unique name and I've posted/created tons of content on the web, but it's difficult to find me in Google because my first name is an animal, and my last name is an adjective. Makes for some pretty interesting search results, actually.

And to think I cursed my parents all these years! They were just concerned about my privacy all along!
posted by krunk at 12:14 PM on July 25, 2002


I have a fairly unusual name, so imagine my surprise when I did a google search and found someone with the exact first and last name. I actually feel kind of sorry for her, she seems like a nice set designer with a whole lot of talent, where as I am a smart-ass editorialist who delights in annoying the powers that be. Poor girl, I hope she hasn't had to deal with my ex-husband.
posted by dejah420 at 12:26 PM on July 25, 2002


"It almost gives you a good reason to name your kid something bland," Mr. Holtzman said. "You are doing them a good favor by doing that."

That line is hilarious. My username is my real name. Do a search on google for my name I'm the first and second hit and my domain is not suzysmith.com (which is sitting with no content and has for a long time.)
posted by SuzySmith at 12:50 PM on July 25, 2002


i got an email from someone yesterday asking me to remove an old usenet post of theirs from my site. i did so, but i thought then that this whole thing is odd. what's so bad about other people knowing who you are? was he ashamed of himself?

i have a whole pile of stuff on my site - incompetent rants archived away that i can no longer remember the reason for - but it's staying there because there was a point in my life when i felt that way. i'm not about to go censoring my previous selves....

i can see the argument about not publishing other people's info, but how can you be worried about what you yourself have said? it seems to imply either you're ashamed of your past self or you feel under pressure to conform to some higher ideal. like some kind of need to advertise yourself as a brighter, shinier product than you really are. were human. we say stupid things. it's normal.

(and i'm number 1 hit for my (common) name on google and proud of it :-)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:34 PM on July 25, 2002


Ah, so this explains why people have been Google-ing my name all day... I was wondering why I was getting so many referrers from this.

I've published writing on the Web since 1995, and the search for my name brings back more than hundreds of pages, however, I'm not really worried that people are going to find something that will upset/embarrass me. I agree with what andrew cooke posted above. It's important to stand by what you have written in the past, even if you no longer agree with it. And I have always written about candid stuff. A few days ago, my father called me, and said, "Please stop mentioning drugs on your website. The government is taking away our rights to privacy, and you can get yourself into trouble." Comments like that cause me to question my ideals of open-ness a bit, I guess.

For people who keep online journals and blogs, it's such a carnival trick -- what's OK to write in a *personal* journal that's open to the *public* and will be archived for years to come? I just try to be myself in almost all forums -- in my online writing, with my friends, with my family, with acquaintences, with co-workers -- and I hope I won't regret the choices I've made.
posted by popvulture at 4:52 PM on July 25, 2002


I had no idea just HOW common my name is until I wasted my time trying to "find myself" in google. I found mentions of at least five people with the same first and last name as me - in my town, none of whom happen to be typing this.
posted by bargle at 5:10 PM on July 25, 2002


i can see the argument about not publishing other people's info, but how can you be worried about what you yourself have said?

When someone posts something, they do so with a context, the context of a thread, the context of a group of people. When it is reposted elsewhere, it is taken out of context and reflects a very different light on the original message.
posted by zegooober at 6:09 PM on July 25, 2002


Fortunately, my name is very common and Google presents over 3,000 links. Only by adding +australia do I get to the front page.

Even though you should consider that anything you publish on the Web is public, there are often things published about you by others and it is impossible to control this. Some of the links that are me on Google are not in English, so I have no idea what they say. Scary place we are building, isn't it?
posted by dg at 7:20 PM on July 25, 2002


what they say
posted by dg at 7:23 PM on July 25, 2002


You've mentioned that earlier in this discussion zegooober, and I agree, context must always be considered. But Google is only mechanizing what the rest of the media has done since time immemorial: take people's words out of context. Thanks for pointing it out though, because Google does it unintentionally.
posted by insomnyuk at 7:31 PM on July 25, 2002


I don't bother masking my name or anything else, because I believe I'm the only person with my name on Earth. So a simple search for me will turn up everything connected to me. I can't hide, so why bother trying?
posted by Down10 at 9:43 PM on July 25, 2002


I try my best to mask my name and whatnot since I don't want this to happen to me.
posted by AFrayedKnot at 10:43 PM on July 25, 2002


I've just changed my name to Britney Sex ;)
posted by fullerine at 11:59 PM on July 25, 2002


When it is reposted elsewhere, it is taken out of context

First, this is a different case from searching for things in google - google simply indexes information that exists within its context (a web site, usenet discussion, emails with ">" quotes, etc).

Second, it's pretty obvious whether something has context or not. If someone creates a page that reads "andrew cooke said: I am an idiot" who is going to take that as an absolute statement? It's clear to the reader that it's missing context. If the reader is too stupid to spot that then frankly I don't think I need to worry about what they think.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:26 AM on July 26, 2002


Hey, what about Metafilter posts? Does matthowie plan on making it possible to edit/remove previous posts? Or does this go against the whole vision of the site?
posted by MarkO at 7:46 AM on July 26, 2002


and i'm number 1 hit for my (common) name on google and proud of it

Amateur
posted by straight at 11:18 AM on July 27, 2002


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