Fighting the information war (but only on behalf of rich people)
There’s an information war out there which we have to be prepared for. Actually there a few of them.
And according to this New York Times piece, there’s now a way to fight against the machine, for a fee. Companies like Reputation.com will try to scour the web and remove data you don’t want floating around about you, and when that’s impossible they’ll flood the web with other good data to balance out the bad stuff.
At least that’s what I’m assuming they do, because they of course don’t really explain their techniques. And that’s the other information war, where they scare rich people with technical sounding jargon and tell them unlikely stories to get their money.
I’m not claiming predatory information-gatherers aren’t out there. But this is the wrong way to deal with it.
First of all, most of the data out there systematically being used for nefarious purposes, at least in this country, is used against the poor, denying them reasonable terms on their loans and other services. So the idea that people will need to pay for a service to protect their information is weird. It’s like saying the air quality is bad for poor people, so let’s charge rich people for better air.
So what kind of help is Reputation.com actually providing? Here’s my best guess.
First it targets people to get overly scared in the spirit of this recent BusinessWeek article, which explains that cosmetic companies have gone to China and started a campaign to convince Chinese women they are too hairy so they’ll start buying products to remove hair. From that article, which is guaranteed to make you understand something about American beauty culture too:
Despite such plays on women’s fears of embarrassment, Reckitt Benckiser’s Sehgal says that Chinese women are too “independent-minded” to be coaxed into using a product they don’t really need. Others aren’t so sure. Veet’s Chinese marketing “plays a role that is very similar to that of the apple in the Bible,” says Benjamin Voyer, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at ESCP Europe business school. “It creates an awareness, which subsequently creates a feeling of shame and need.”
Second, Reputation.com gets their clients off nuisance lists, like the modern version of a do-not-call program (which, importantly, is run by the government). This is probably equivalent to setting up a bunch of email filters and clearing their cookies every now and then, but they can’t tell their clients that.
Finally, for those rich people who are also super vain, they will try to do things like replace the unflattering photos of them that come up in a google image search with better-looking ones they choose. Things like that, image issues.
I just want to point out one more salient fact about Reputation.com. It’s not just in their interest to scare-monger, it’s actually in their interest to make the data warehouses more complete (they have themselves amassed an enormous database on people), and to have people who don’t pay for their services actually need their services more. They could well create a problem to produce a market for their product.
What drives me nuts about this is how elitist it is.
There are very real problems in the information-gathering space, and we need to address them, but one of the most important issues is that the very people who can’t afford to pay for their reputation to be kept clean are the real victims of the system.
There is literally nobody who will make good money off of actually solving this problem: I challenge any libertarian to explain how the free market will address this. It has to be addressed through policy, and specifically through legislating what can and cannot be done with personal data.
Probably the worst part is that, through using the services from companies Reputation.com and because of the nature of the personalization of internet usage, the very legislators who need to act on behalf of their most vulnerable citizens won’t even see the problem since they don’t share it.