Digging for "digital dirt" in cyberspace

The basis of an article in yesterday's Sunday Times suggests people are increasingly — and obliviously — being judged by what internet search engines throw up about them, i.e. have you Googled yourself recently?!

The article goes onto suggest that people who socialise on the net cannot erase the consequences of a moment’s stupidity - "Their colourful private lives will sit forever on silently spinning hard drives."

There are lots of examples to make the point - most of which come from the blogosphere or a politician appearing in his underwear on Gaydar. However, their extreme nature arguably glosses over the potential dangers of creating an on-line image of yourself that may not fit with your future self.

Having said all of the above, later on in the article it argued that the absence of a cyber-profile could be damaging too - i.e. you could be viewed as weird for not being mentioned somewhere in cyberspace.

Some remedies are suggested later on in the article, i.e. contacting a "search engine optimisation firm", which can clean up your on-line self. A less expensive or extreme strategy would be to kindly ask the owner of a site you've left a message on to remove it.

My suggestion would be to avoid using your real name except where it is absolutely necessary and Google yourself every now and then to see what, if anything, people have been saying about you. See Focus: Have you been Googled? by John Elliot for more details about digging for digital dirt.


Scott Enk said...

Employers and recruiters who seek "digital dirt" on job candidates and employees rather than concentrate on on-the-job skills and performance are not only infringing on employees' and job seekers' privacy and dignity--they're undermining our most basic rights and freedoms.

Indeed, the way in which some employers in our "free" United States are now trying to coerce or control what employees and applicants do on their own time and off employer premises is an outrage that demands concerted action by every concerned worker--and by our society.

In the absence of laws banning such practices in most states, it seems that some out-of-control employers now would, if they could, bring back the long-dead practice of requiring workers, as a condition of employment, to shop only at the company store and live in the company town. This sort of thing is a major threat to your freedom--and mine.

Once one allows any employer to dictate one aspect of one's private life, where does it stop?

It is time to give "Big Brother"--today's King George III--the political and economic equivalent of a stiff public slap in the face and to restrain him with laws and other actions that will put him in his place. To let him continue as he may choose is truly scary.

Most if not all employers and recuiters snooping into "digital dirt" on employees' and applicants' off-the-job lives seem to have an obsession with making sure that only the "right" types of people are hired, perhaps in the name of making sure employees have the "right" attitudes and, to use that now-favorite corporate buzz word, are a good "fit" (read: are sufficiently cowed and properly docile to accept existing abuses and any possible future ones the employer might decide to inflict), why not require employees and job applicants to submit to employer monitoring--again, the technology for this is already widely available!--of whatever they, even (indeed, especially) on their own time and off employer premises, read, watch, or listen to; who they associate with and what kinds of organizations they participate in; what Web sites they visit and what they send or receive online; and the like.

We can't have employees who dare to write or read postings like this one or otherwise explore, much less spread, ideas about "controversial matters" that the employer might not like, such as notions about fairer tax policies and a stronger "social safety net," or--horror of horrors--about (gasp!) employees and job applicants actually having rights and about even daring to regulate business to stop privacy abuses, pay inequities, the destruction of health-care, pension, and other benefits, or the like, now, can we? Gotta protect that almighty bottom line and the freedom to select our employees and run our business as we see fit!

Indeed, at least as scary as employer attempts to regulate off-hours, off-premises smoking and the like are cases where employers fire, demote, otherwise discipline, or refuse to hire people based on such irrelevant things as their off-hours choices of products or political activities.

Employment discrimination based on one's off-the-job political activities, indeed, seem to be rising to a level not known since the era of McCarthyism, with its blacklisting and "political clearances." As has been widely reported, including in a story on CBS's _60 Minutes_, an Alabama woman, Lynne Gobbell, was in 2004 fired from her job at a manufacturing plant for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on her personal car. (After the case made world headlines, she was offered a job--indeed, one with health insurance--by the Kerry campaign, but few employees thus treated are that fortunate.)

As a longtime progressive political activist, I myself have found that many people, especially in today's job-scarce economy, are now hesitant to take part in any form of political activism--writing a letter to a newspaper, calling a radio talk show, posting something on the Internet, taking part in a march or a rally--for fear that their employer might somehow frown on such actions. Today, the Internet and like means make it frighteningly easy for employers to snoop into job applicants' or employees' personal beliefs and activities.

Indeed, in 2002, during a long job hunt after a 2001 layoff, I was once denied a plum job as an editor with a nonprofit educational association in part because of what the employer, when I challenged its vague (and contradiction-ridden) claim of things being simply a matter of "subtle factors" involving "fit"--meanwhile, I suspected and alleged sex discrimination (the editorial department involved was all-female and stayed so)--called, in McCarthyesque terms, my "record" of involvement in "controversial issues," namely, feminism and children's rights--certainly never brought up in any interview or correspondence, but found after the "responsible" employer decided to do an Internet search.

I'd like to ask this employer--and many others--this question: Who do you think you are, you nosy twit? (Stick *that* in your digital dossiers!)

This sleazy practice, too, while disturbing and reprehensible, is in many states, mine included, still apparently legal. This, too, must be stopped through legislation like California's, which specifically forbids employers from dictating or attempting to dictate employees' political activity.

Better yet, every state and Congress should adopt legislation, as a few states have, protecting the right of employees and job applicants to engage in any lawful off-hours, off-premises activities they choose without fear of employment discrimination.

*Generally, such activities are none of an employer's business* unless they pose an actual and substantial conflict of interest or otherwise materially and substantially impair one's ability to do one's job. Mere dislike of or disagreement with a worker's political views or skittishness about "company image" or possible "controversy" is not enough.

Ironically, the fear that many workers now have of employment discrimination based on their political activities is the very thing that keeps them from taking the steps, both as individuals and with others, to bring about an end to this and related abuses. It is also a significant brake on long-needed, long-overdue social and economic progress in America--indeed, to efforts to stop this country's headlong rush, especially under George W. Bush and his ilk, back to the days of Herbert Hoover--indeed, of William McKinley.

It is time to reclaim your and our rights--before they are lost forever, before we are all forced to live at the mercy of abusive employers in a nationwide, high-tech version of the company town that controls not only our work tasks but our other actions, our minds, and our souls "24/7." It is not about the bottom line; it's about power and control. We, the people, must reclaim our rights.

In the famous words of Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice Edward G. Ryan, words that indelibly impressed University of Wisconsin student Robert M. La Follette--later to be widely considered Wisconsin's greatest governor: "The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: 'Which shall rule--wealth or man? Which shall lead--money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations--educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?'" (Of course, I'd prefer Ryan have used nonsexist language!)

So write your state and national lawmakers, your governor, and, yes, even President Bush, and urge them all to support legislation protecting the rights of employees and job applicants to engage in lawful off-hours, off-employer-premises activities without fear of employment discrimination.

Urge them also to replace the dangerous prevailing concept of "employment at will"--under which an employer, absent law or contract provision to the contrary, may fire any employee for any reason, no reason, or even a bad or morally wrong reason--with a "just cause" standard, similar to the law now in Montana. Every worker deserves and has the right to this most basic of protections. "Employment at will" (read: employment at whim) literally does mean that "they can fire you if they don't like the way you part your hair." This, too, is outrageous. This must end.

As Alexander Hamilton said over 200 years ago, the power over a person's subsistence is a power over that person's will. The history of liberty and justice in America has often involved--indeed, required--regulating and limiting not only the power of our public governments but the power of such "private governments" as corporations and other employers over individuals, their choices, and their rights. So take action today!

Let's say to employers: Our skills, attention, and loyalty are yours eight hours a day, 40 hours a week; the rest of our lives belong to us, and to us alone. For not only ourselves but our fellow citizens and future generations, we are taking back our lives, our privacy, and our rights.

For more information about these and related issues, check out these links:






Do let me know what you think of all this. Thanks for your time and thought--and even more for your efforts!

For your freedoms and rights and mine,

Scott Enk


Daryl Basarab said...

Excellent comment. I read it and agreed with every word.