When Bad News Follows You
A BUSINESS strategy of The New York Times to get its articles to pop up first in Internet searches is creating a perplexing problem: long-buried information about people that is wrong, outdated or incomplete is getting unwelcome new life.
People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up.
[...] Kraus’s situation is an unhappy byproduct of something called search engine optimization, which The Times has been using to make money by driving traffic to its Web site. Technically complex, search engine optimization pushes Times content to or near the top of search results, regardless of its importance or accuracy.
[...] But what can they do? The choices all seem fraught with pitfalls. You can’t accept someone’s word that an old article was wrong. What if that person who was charged with abusing a child really was guilty? Re-report every story challenged by someone? Impossible, said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of the newsroom’s online operation: there’d be time for nothing else.
[...] Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has a different answer to the problem: He thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events.
Following Mayer-Schönberger’s logic, The Times could program some items, like news briefs, which generate a surprising number of the complaints, to expire, at least for wide public access, in a relatively short time. Articles of larger significance could be assigned longer lives, or last forever.
See also Rewriting history: Should editors delete or alter online content?; also Slate’s counterpoint: Blaming the Times for Your Bad Reputation; also Blaming the Times for Your Bad Reputation, Part 2
As I previously wrote, you may think reputation belongs to you, but it doesn’t. It lives inside the heads of other people, and now inside Google. It’s their possession. If you want to change it, do something to convince people and the Web that you aren’t who they think you are.