Monday, July 16, 2007

The Danger of Uncontrollable Commentary and Those Who Promote It

That might sound like a strange heading for a blogger to use, yet today I was faced with an interesting example of the danger the internet can cause to not just our privacy, but to our reputations as well.
I received an email today from a friend “inviting” me to join WikiYou, a site with biographies of “everyone on earth” (everyone on earth with a zip code, as it turns out) written by anyone and everyone, Wikipedia style. This immediately frightened me. There have been numerous stories in the news recently about people being turned down for jobs by companies checking out their MySpace pages and finding things, pictures, or even opinions they didn’t like. HR departments now have people who will search out everything about you, beyond a simple credit check, just to see what kind of person you are. WikiYou crosses the line into what kind of person others think you are. I decided to see if there was anything about me up there, so I clicked on the link in the email. I went to the site, which asked for my name and zip code, at which point I found myself registered for the site under my private email address, which, according to the privacy policy, they could pretty much do whatever they wanted to. I was never asked if that was the address I wanted to make available, because they don’t care. In essence, this is one of the world’s great phishing scams, run by a man named Jay Gould, founder and CEO of this scam. I tried sending them an email, protesting the policy, but got no response, apparently because the address they give to contact them bounces back.
The scam is really neat, since if you are interested in whether or not you are up there – and more important, whether you are being slandered or defamed – you have to join the site, since no access is available to “non-members”, which, you guessed it, gives them a live address to sell to whomever they want to.
You may have noticed that I had the word invited in quotes. My friend didn’t invite me or anyone else, merely used his gmail contact list, as the site suggested he do, to search for possible other people on the site. They then took the addresses, and, without his permission, emailed everyone in it with an invitation from him. I consider that to be a form of identity theft.
We are living in a world where authoritative sources are being overwhelmed by non-authoritative ones, where truth is battling with truthiness. There is a big difference in a “fact” reported by Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh (which is true about 30% of the time) and one reported by Brian Williams (true 90% with a correction offered for the other 10). Yet people don’t treat those as different. “I heard it on the radio” or “I saw it on TV” is rapidly morphing into “I saw it on the web” and the nature of sources on the web is dicey at best. Intelligent people know that while Wikipedia is a good source, it is a seriously flawed source and could contain inaccuracies, since anyone can put something up. When sites have biographies of millions of people, with commentaries absent any verification procedures whatsoever, the information – and misinformation -- about our lives is out there for anyone to see and judge us by.
Earlier, I referred to HR departments vetting prospective employees by checking My Space. It didn’t stop at employment – even if you pass the initial vetting, the checking on your personal pages could well continue, just to make sure you don’t say anything unwelcome by your employers. Surely this will go further, into running complete searches of everything written about you anywhere. I mean, if someone wrote on WikiYou that person A was seen hanging around school playgrounds in 2003, or Person B cheated on his final exams his senior year in college, would those things not flash a red light for an HR department with numerous choices? Yes, you can join the site and edit things out, but no person should have to police the rumors and slanders associated with them on a daily basis. People should have a right to protect their own names more directly, by forbidding a site from having that kind of “biographical” data about them.
In any case, the sheer proliferation of these things around the web makes for a future of dubious “facts’ and inaccurate information – get used to it.

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