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Reputation Defenders Go Overboard

In Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End one of the main characters, Robert Gu, searches Google for information about someone. The results display simple information about the person’s career and when she died but “the details were a cloud of contradiction, some agree with Bob told him, some not. It was this damn Friends of Privacy.  It was hard to imagine such villains, doing their best to undermine what he could find on the net.  A ‘vandal charity was what they call themselves.”

Vinge’s novel takes place in 2025 in San Diego, California.  Though Vinge writes science fiction, his work incorporates elements of technology and behaviors already present today. In fact groups similar to the Friends of Privacy currently operate to eliminate embarrassing information from the Internet.  Unlike Vinge’s group which strives to muddy the information pool, these groups have been praised for removing snippy comments and dubious claims about people or organizations. Now, however, Declan McCullagh reports that some reputation defending services are engaged in aggressive and dubious business practices to achieve their goals so much so that a federal judge has granted a restraining order against some of these companies and found that one of them engaged in libel in their efforts to clean up the Internet. The article quotes from one service’s e-mails: “No matter where you go, we will cause you a problem. Your life is in danger until you comply with our demands. This is your last warning.”

Vinge’s idea of a vandal charity might offend those who believe there is some way to achieve perfect information, but given the vast quantities of information on the Internet and the way in which some take the information as gospel, a group that highlights the need for skepticism about Internet information is a fun literary device. Unfortunately, in the real world it seems that the more pernicious version of such activity is what we have.

For those interested on how not to write a cease and desist letter (hint: lines such as “You will soon be beaten to a pulp and pounced into the ground six feet under with a baseball bat and sleg (sic) hammer.” are to be avoided) Declan’s article has the text of messages.