Columnist Chris Silver Smith recounts the story of one man who made a horrific mistake and explains why we need a solution for protecting people’s privacy and reputations in the information age.
Some of the work my search marketing agency does is “Online Reputation Management” — or, it might be more accurate to call it “Online Reputation Repair.” We sometimes work to help individuals and companies to try to make a better impression in search results when their names are searched upon. In this case, that involves a homicide.
I should preface by stating that I won’t work for just anybody — I’m not at all a “mercenary for hire” or anything close — there are quite a number of individuals and companies that I’ve turned down flat in the course of my career. If it appears that a company’s core business model is based on victimization, I won’t touch it. Or, if my work would put innocent people at risk of some kind of harm, it’s not for me.
I’ve turned down significant potential contracts with companies that were barely legal pyramid schemes, doctors providing medical tourism services, oil companies that are involved with possible securities fraud, or groups that seemed distastefully cult-like or predicated on furthering some type of ignorance that I ethically cannot promote. So, I don’t take on clients lightly, or merely because they’re willing to pay handsomely.
That being said, there are many cases where a company or someone made a bad decision in the past, but they’ve worked to change and have improved and worked to learn from mistakes. Only, their online reputation dogs them to the point where they just don’t have a chance to move on.
For instance, I’ve worked for college students who got arrested and their mugshots or arrest records follow them, even though all charges were dropped, or they went into deferred adjudication and were never precisely found guilty. Try getting a job when an HR representative Googles your name and sees a mugshot!
I’m a big believer in second chances — I think people are capable of change, and that they should be allowed to evolve as individuals. Even our legal system, to some degree, takes this into account, particularly with younger people — there seems to be some level of acknowledgement that the young are more prone to making poor decisions.
This brings me to this case. (The names and some minor details have been changed for obvious reasons. This is an otherwise true story.)
The Story Of A Homicide
A few years ago, I was approached by a woman who had been referred to me by an attorney I’d worked with on some defamation cases. From the context, it seemed the attorney felt there was no legal recourse for her issue, so he recommended she talk to me.
We met up at a Starbucks, and I signed a boilerplate nondisclosure form she’d printed off of the Internet — this in itself is unusual because I make it clear that I am highly discreet when discussing potential client issues, and I won’t reveal private discussions, even if I opt not to take a case. She was highly fearful of talking to me or anyone — it took some time for her to work up the courage to tell me what she wanted to see me about. She’d never spoken of these things with even a friend.
It seemed that her husband, “Tom,” had committed a terrible crime in his teen years — he’d in fact killed another teen who had been associated with a group of kids from his school that picked on him to some degree. Something had escalated rather quickly one day, and in a mixture of fear and rage he had attacked and killed the other boy.
After a period of time, he was charged with the killing, and later sentenced to prison for some years by the court. Due to his young age, the facts of the case (it was manslaughter and not premeditated) and the charges brought by the prosecutor, his sentence was not a long one, allowing him to be freed after a handful of years.
While in prison and afterwards, he applied himself to completing his education and earned a trade. His parents helped him change his name when he got out of prison, and he moved to a few other locations. Highly regretful for his past, he moved on, determined to never hurt anyone again nor commit any other crime, and it seemed that he left his past behind him.
A Haunting Past
But, there were additional things about his situation that raised the general public’s interest. Some newspaper companies had followed the case closely due to some of the human-interest elements, and eventually a movie was made about it. This, of course, resulted in curiosity about the case spreading beyond the city where the events happened.
While some sickened criminals derive pleasure from getting attention, this was the furthest thing from Tom’s mind. He was horrified by the coverage, ashamed of his actions, and wanted nothing more than to be forgotten and left to live a normal life. He’d chosen a positive path and moved on. He’s apparently never even watched the film — thinking about what he’d done leaves him nauseated.
Somewhere in here after prison, his wife came into the picture. He met her, courted her, and they fell in love. She was a quiet Midwesterner who only wanted the classic American dream of domestic bliss.
After she agreed to be engaged to him, one night he, overcome with guilty misgivings, declared that he had some past sins to disclose to her. Either because she was entirely too trusting, or too naïve in her belief in his basic goodness, she insisted that she didn’t need to know, and that she knew him now and they should let the past be bygones.
Perhaps she thought he was only referring to some past love affairs or some such. I find it hard to blame him for not insisting on disclosing the stain on his record from the past, though, and they were married.
It was a few years into their marriage when she recalled the conversation at some point — I think it was after she became pregnant with their first child, and was perhaps feeling more insecure or something — and she finally asked him to tell what he’d meant about the past. He told her, and she was shocked, and not a little horrified.
She’d never imagined that she’d married a criminal, someone who’d served time in prison, much less a killer. She tells me she never would’ve married him, had she known.
At least it was determined to be manslaughter, she felt, and perhaps it occurred a fit of passion, and was partly forgivable as accidental due to that. He’d never displayed any tendency to violence, and seemed to be a great spouse.
While her conservative family would be scandalized and disapproving, there was no need for them to ever know. This was indeed in the past, and it would never come up. So, she forgave him for omitting telling her, and they moved on.
Enter The Internet
Eventually, the internet happened. Unbeknownst to the couple, there was a crowd of true-crime buffs, murder aficionados and self-appointed anti-bullying activists that were curious about the case. There was also a set of self-righteous zealots who formed the equivalent of a small, vigilante mob that believed he’d gotten off way too lightly.
These haphazard groups were highly curious about what had become of the boy that killed another, and they’d long been trying to find out information on him — where he was and what he was up to.
At some point, the sea of internet information washed up on its shore tidbits that finally linked his past name with his current name and location, and this sparked off more online activity around the old case.
This had just happened a few weeks prior to the wife meeting with me.
Some of the curious “fans” of true-crime and the vigilantes were promoting information about her husband — something that was now resulting in stripping them of the protection of obscurity. When you Googled his name — not always, but increasingly — it seemed that these weird murder- and crime-oriented website were appearing. And, the malicious individuals were starting to pepper the Internet with mentions of the town where they lived and of his employer — and even her name, and their street address!
The couple was horrified and fearful — what if some of these potentially unhinged people showed up on their doorstep? Or, if her family came to know?!? Or, if he got fired for this past misdeed?
I found myself struck by their case. From all the facts I came to know about it, it really did seem that this person had made a horrific mistake, but he’d acknowledged it, paid the price demanded of society, and moved on to become a positively contributing member of society. Beyond him there were other people, completely innocent of the initial misdeed, who could be affected by the negative reputation online. I chose to take it on in order to assist and try to mitigate it.
Reputation And Privacy In The Information Age
Due to my other work, I’ve long known that our society and its laws have pretty thoroughly failed to evolve properly to enable past criminals who chose the path of rehabilitation to move on into becoming effective members of society once again.
This isn’t meant to be some sort of political rant, by the way, but an observation that our society’s intentions in this area are dichotomous and the goals are mixed and in conflict. The laws simply haven’t evolved to address the fact of the information age.
If you’ve ever been arrested, your information rapidly can be propagated across many websites, and cached in background-check databases. This is even if charges are dropped, or if you’re later found not guilty!
Once the information shows up, it makes it harder to get employment, housing, or to date anyone, in some cases. If you actually are sentenced for a crime, the situation is even worse — it’s nearly impossible to get a decent job or apartment. Our laws in Texas are supposed to allow minors to have their records completely expunged — but, that’s only the government records — it does absolutely no good if those records got copied into all the private/commercial databases out there.
My client’s situation is a little unique, in that it’s higher-profile — there are so many stories like this out there, but with less visibility. The movie about my client was not all that successful nor well known. The name change helped them, and the online vigilantes and haters don’t know their true current name or address, although we let them think they do.
We created new personas that share my client’s name, so that these personas become the targets of the weirdos. And, we’ve cleaned up some of the over-the-top and unfair stuff that has been posted about them.
There’s no “right-to-be-forgotten” in the works, really, for my client, which is sad. Most of my cases involve untrue libel, or malicious defamation, rather than the truth. But, there are instances where it seems unfair that even the truth should tar-and-feather a person for their entire lives.
Sure, there’s a subset of venomous, self-righteous people who believe that former criminals should be vilified for life, but our laws don’t reflect that, and I think the majority of us don’t support that premise — else, we would be branding people with the scarlet letter to this day.
Our society hasn’t had sufficient time to really evolve to the point where we’re ready for all information being open and immediately available about each other. We don’t yet acknowledge the level of human fallibility that is commonly present amongst us. We have a tendency to zero-in on salacious and negative instances without troubling to take a more holistic look at one’s life.
What is the solution to this? At the very least, young people absolutely need to have a measured chance of escaping past misdeeds to some degree. I’m not talking about dangerously unhinged serial killers and psychopaths — but, society needs to really decide the point at which someone is forgiven for their past, and then allow them a real chance to move past it — not just in a state government criminal background check, but also in commercial databases and even in the search results.
Search Engines And Internet Publishers Should Step Up
Search engines and Internet publishers need to be part of this solution as well. Past Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously opined that the solution for this sort of thing would be to have people change their names — well, I can tell you that this asinine and insensitive suggestion — disingenuously motivated by a desire to defer responsibility and reduce corporate expenses — is quite insufficient.
Search engines helped to create the very medium that is now a primary go-to source for reputation information, so they bear a portion of responsibility, and a mere name change isn’t a reasonable solution. Our laws in the U.S. in this matter have too long favored big business without balancing the real, human costs.
In Europe, the situation is a bit different. European laws seem somewhat more advanced in this area, compared with the U.S., even if they haven’t perhaps found the perfect balance of personal rights versus sustainable corporate business regulations. I assisted a defamed individual in the U.K. last year who sought to compel Google to be more helpful in cleaning up the defamation that a hostile person had published across hundreds of webpages.
Unfortunately, most individuals don’t have the resources to hire legal teams and reputation specialists like myself to help them clean up their online reputation issues — and, until there’s a wider recognition that we need a more comprehensive solution around this, the situation is only going to worsen.
Laws around legal records, privacy, and online publishers’ responsibilities need to shift in order to make this workable and reasonable. Or else, our society’s overall psychology needs to shift to not place quite so much weight on the distant past and to acknowledge that most people around us are imperfect in some ways that don’t always justify turning them into pariahs.
While my killer client’s case has some unusual aspects, it dramatically represents a more serious problem that is experienced by a great many people who did not do anything nearly as terrible as homicide. Young people need a means of emerging from past mistakes.
Our aging laws allow for things like changing one’s name and expungement of records, and sealing juvenile records, but the Internet’s tendency to blast information out into the open has unraveled all those past mechanisms that allowed people a chance to leave their past behind.
We either need to enact new laws that allow people to submit removal requests without requiring them to pay extortionate fees to publishers, or we need to tamp down on publishing of proper names in certain contexts.
In the meantime, I continue working to face down the equivalent of online lynch mobs carrying torches and pitchforks, all the while hoping our society might evolve in some way to put me out of work doing this sort of thing.
Resources on the Right To Be Forgotten (RTBF) from our sister site, Search Engine Land:
- France Gives Google 15 Days To Apply Right-To-Be-Forgotten To Global Results
- Demanding More Detail, Legal Group Calls On Google To Disclose RTBF Criteria
- Right-To-Be-Forgotten One Year Later: 70 Percent Of Requests Refused
- EU Issues “Right To Be Forgotten” Criteria
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)