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Googling and the future

As I woke to the news blaring from my alarm clock radio this morning an item caught my attention. In my sleepy state I couldn’t remember the specific details but I was aware of the ramifications of what I had heard because this is something that has come up a number of times in various discussions I have had over the last few weeks.

In summary, a New Zealand District Court judge has ordered that the names and images of two men accused of murder are to be suppressed but only in one medium – the internet. The main rationale behind this decision is once your name appears online it’s there forever and this can have negative consequences in the future for the person involved and the fairness of their trial. The judge was not only concerned about the powers of googling to get information but also the viral aspects of digital publications.

Judge suppresses web reports
Law Commission considers court order
Monday, 25 August 2008

The Law Commission is to consider today’s court order preventing the name and images of two men accused of murder from being reported online.

The two men, aged 23 and 21, were remanded in custody when they appeared in Manukau District Court charged with murdering 14-year-old John Hapeta.

Judge David Harvey allowed their names and images to be published on television news bulletins and in newspapers, but would not allow them to be published on the internet.

Judge Harvey reportedly said that he was “concerned about someone Googling someone’s name and being able to access it later”. He was also “concerned about the viral effect of digital publication”.

Law Commission President Sir Geoffrey Palmer said today that the order would affect a commission study into name suppression.

“It will have to be taken into account … this is a very interesting development from the point of view of our project.”

He had never heard of such an order before, but suspected it was to do with the huge rise of “googling”, which jurors could potentially do at home on nights of the trial.

Lawyers for Stuff.co.nz are considering the suppression order this afternoon.

Media commentator Russell Brown told 3 News that the ruling was “unusual”. He said it had the feel of an experiment to it.

“A point that needs making is that Judge Harvey is no mug when it comes to the internet. He has written a text book on cyber-law in New Zealand.

“On a technical level he probably knows more about the internet than any other judge in the country,” Brown told 3 News.

Judge Harvey’s textbook on the internet and law is called internet.law.nz.

Brown says that bloggers will be unhappy that the main-stream media has access to something they don’t.

The two men each face three further charges.

They were remanded in custody to reappear in Manukau District Court on Friday.

A 15-year-old boy also appeared in Manukau Youth Court today facing charges of assault with intent to rob and using a pistol in the commission of a crime.

He will reappear in Manukau Youth Court on Friday

NZPA (Monday, 25 August 2008). Judge suppresses web reports: Law Commission considers court order. The Dominion Post. Full article available at http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominionpost/4668473a6000.html

It will be interesting to see how this particular case unfolds. However there are many aspects to this situation that are directly relevant to you and me as well.

Have you ever tried googling your own name? If you have never done this I strongly suggest you do. I remember the first time I did it I was surprised as to how much information was available about me out there in cyberspace that those wee bots are able to put their hands on.

For years I have been dealing with comments by people who don’t believe in the internet and see it as the playground of people who are out to harm others. They perceive that the footprint you leave could come back later to bite you. I have never subscribed to this philosophy and consequently I have engaged rather vigorously in a variety of online activities. However I have always been mindful of the data that was being stored and have never done anything that may in some way incriminate me; well that’s what I believe. How do I actually know this to be true because what I believe and write about today may not be viewed the same way in the future. I may even change my own ideas and opinions.

My husband attended the DEANZ Conference last week and this topic arose there as well. One of the keynote speakers, Michael Barbour, commented on the work he does with his students about their online identities and keeping themselves safe. He was talking about long term safety rather than the immediate concept of stranger danger and protecting yourself from perverts on the loose on the internet. He asks his students to consider the personal implications of the following question, “Do you want what you’re doing today online to be permanently documented and accessible to anyone in the years to come?” He also pointed out that no-one at their university gets entry into a Masters or PhD programme without being googled as part of the acceptance process.

Another conversation I had on this topic was with someone at work. He said he always Googles applicants for advertised positions to see what he can find out about them. This is something I would never have thought to do. He continued to tell me about the kind of information he discovered. I was surprised to hear about people who had their Facebook sites available for public viewing and this was only the beginning.

As I researched this a bit more I soon discovered that googling is a normal employment practice in today’s workplaces. The June 2007 Harvard Business Review had an interesting interactive case study – We Googled You – on this topic.

Summary of the We Googled You Interactive Case Study

Hathaway Jone’s (a luxury apparel retailer company) CEO has found a promising candidate, Mimi Brewster, to open the company’s flagship store in Shanghai.

Mimi grew up in China and she spoke both Mandarin and a local dialect. She was young scholarly woman who possessed all the necessary qualifications and experience the company was looking for.

The CEO was impressed by Mimi’s CV and her personal professionalism, and her interview for this key position goes off without a hitch.

HR routinely Google applicants. They scan the first 11 pages of search results for any potential hire. in Mimi’s case page 9 reveals that fresh out of university Mimi was involved in a nonviolent vocal protest group that helped mobilise campaigns against the World Trade Organisation. After digging deeper a newspaper story featured Mimi sitting outside China’s San Francisco consulate protesting China’s treatment of a dissident journalist.

Should the CEO hire Mimi despite her online history or should she be disqualified as ineligible for the position?

What would you do?

Here is a summary of the three key commenters on this case study provided by the Career by Choice blog:

Jeffrey A. Joerres is the chief executive officer of Manpower, one of the largest employment services companies in the world. He felt for a number of reasons that he would not hire Mimi. He believes that “online content is public information and is fair game for employers to ask about it”. In his opinion the information online was just as relevant as that on her resume.

Danah Boyd, doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and an advisor to major media corporations, has been blogging for ten years. Her opinion was that Mimi should have been hired. Employers need people “who play by the rules”, but they also need creative thinkers and people not afraid to speak their minds when their ideas are not considered to be mainstream. Actively posting to share a person’s present views can remedy thoughts shared in the past that may be particularly damaging to a person’s online reputation.

Micheal Fertik is CEO of ReputationDefender, a company that finds and removes digital dirt for their clients. Clearly he feels one’s online identity is important or he wouldn’t be in the business he is in. He indicated that hiring Mimi would undoubtedly create problems for the company. He believes that one must monitor your online identity as a person’s reputation is not just about you share about yourself, but what others’ say about you. His quote from the last paragraph says it all: “Don’t tell me that it {a negative comment online} wouldn’t have an enormous impact on your emotional and professional well-being”.

This has all provided me with more food for thought than I really wanted today. This is a huge topic with huge implications today, tomorrow and well into the future.

Some days I do wonder if I’m doing the right thing by writing in this blog space and participating online in a variety of other ways. A nagging question I have is will this all come back to bite me? I certainly hope not. I write from the heart, in a genuine, and open way. I research what I write about. I acknowledge my sources.

This is a snapshot of me today and my thoughts and feelings. Obviously with time these may change. Isn’t that what we want for people; to learn and grow and change? The past only informs the present and future. It is not the present or the future. The only influence we really have is over the present moment. The key is to making it a worthwhile present moment and not something we may later regret when it shows up in a Google search. However, our mistakes are also important. Most of the time we’re not consciously making a mistake but the consequences of that mistake can live with us for an incredibly long time and sometimes be difficult to shake off. The internet may be unforgiving but we are human beings and we have the capacity to forgive and to let people move on as appropriate.

The up side of all this is – we will never die thanks to the internet!

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