How the net can be a permanent reminder of past indiscretions

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What do you find if you dare to Google your own name? Probably some links to a bunch of strangers with the same name as you. A couple of dry references on a company website to your job. Maybe an old blog you started and abandoned a few months later. A link to Facebook, and maybe to a page on 192.com that promises to divulge your contact details provided you register and pay some money.

For some people – like my friend Elizabeth Taylor – searching for information about her is impossible because of, well, Elizabeth Taylor. There's another Rhodri Marsden who I'm aware of, a chap living in Cardiff, whose online misdemeanours will inevitably be covered up by the amount of material I've written for this newspaper.

But not everyone is so fortunate. One reader contacted me recently with an example of how the abundance of information online can work against us as well as for us. He used to be a solicitor; back in 1994 he was suspended for six months at a tribunal following accounting irregularities.

Following his return to work he became fully rehabilitated by the Law Society, and the escapade became but an embarrassing memory, an unfortunate slip in an otherwise distinguished career. But recently, a legal periodical digitised all its back issues and placed them on its website; useful for the legal profession, but for the solicitor in question it was, understandably, a shock.

The report of his tribunal was now on the first page of results when you searched Google for his name. An indiscretion, 15 years ago, for which he'd paid the penalty, but which was now distressingly visible because of the online popularity of the periodical in question.

One likes to think one can escape the past pretty easily, but the nature of the internet as an almost permanent repository of old data can now make this tremendously difficult for us.

There are several reasons why we find ourselves deeply frustrated when our name becomes associated with something unpleasant online. Finding the person who put it there is often impossible – and even if you did know, and asked them to remove it, it's likely they'd say no.

Then, there's the legal precedent that websites can't be held responsible for the content that its users upload, so appealing to them is likely to cut no ice, either.

Or in the case of the solicitor described above, it's not even that he disputes the story (and he understands why it's there) he only wishes that it wasn't so easy for people to discover.

So your only remaining hope is with the search engines – which means, predominantly, Google. Of course, the company is not very likely to listen to an individual complaining that an embarrassing picture of them drinking Jägermeister and wearing lingerie crops up on the front page of an image search, so it becomes about displacing it as far down the listings as possible – and hopefully to the third page of results, where statistics tell us that people rarely progress to.

How? Simply by placing more positive content associated with you on the web. Of course, creating Google-friendly web pages that leap to the top of search listings is something that everyone with a website strives for, so it's no surprise that firms such as Reputation Hawk charge significant sums for helping people out.

It's a terrible irony that people who'd probably wish to remain more private should have to make themselves more public in order to save their damaged reputation.

But sadly, there's no real alternative, other than piling yet more information onto the internet's mountain of data.

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