These days, there are probably not many people who don’t know that “to google” something means to search for information on that subject on the Internet, specifically using Google’s popular search engine. While many of you may be frequent Google searchers for looking up everything from addresses and definitions, to movie reviews and medical information, it might not have occurred to you to type your own name into that empty search box and see what happens.
The results of self-googling may be of concern to you. For example, when I perform a search on my name and scroll through the results pages, I find such things as links to stuff that I’ve written that is now obsolete and out of print, a mention of my name in a student’s academic paper written in 2004, a notice that I was being interviewed for a job that I did not get back in 2006, and a Facebook page maintained by a real estate agent who lives in Arizona and has my same name. None of that information is stuff that I’d prefer represents me to the world.
These days, it is a fairly safe assumption that anybody considering hiring you for a good job will not only check your references, but also will do a Google search on you. I’ve recently been involved with two cases where individuals, when googling themselves, were shocked to retrieve information from old documents from their college years (and which, ironically, preceded the invention of the Internet). They wanted those sites expunged, and I don’t blame them.
One person, who did not feel like this information represented her well, argued that potential employers would be turned off if they found it. The other lamented that the Web file represented a part of her life that she’d struggled many years to put behind her. In both cases, that was all that could be found about them on the Web. The random and haphazard information deemed relevant by the search engine portrayed very skewed pictures of these individuals.
Resolving these matters is not simple, though. There’s a couple of catches. First, in these cases, the documents were part of a public historical record, and to redact any part of them creates inaccuracies. There was never any decision made to post these persons’ information, per se, but it was contained within a larger record that was deemed of significant enough archival value to warrant digitizing. Fortunately, here, the Public Records Act provides some guidance, and the matters were satisfied in a manner consistent with the spirit of the act. There are gray areas, though. Witness the controversy over whether signees to certain petitions should be made public. If you signed a petition, would you necessarily want it posted on an Internet site, possibly one put up by an opponent of the issue that you support?
While laws and voluntary restrictions govern privacy in many kinds of online transactions, the Web is so ubiquitous that it can capture flashes of one’s life without that person knowing it. If somebody posts information that is overtly libelous, there is legal recourse.
Generally, though, privacy is a nebulous legal concept, and we as a society are tending toward full disclosure, so the worthwhile goal of an omnibus privacy law seems remote.
Personally, I use the mother test. If I wouldn’t want my mother to see it online, I do not press “send” or give the file to somebody else – and that includes my own mother.
Gregg Sapp is a freelance writer and a member of the Pacific Northwest Science Writers’ Association. A member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, Sapp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.