Google seeks to put users back in control of their online information with a service called Me on the Web that monitors your reputation.
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Now that Google has organized the world's information and made it universally accessible, exposing your youthful indiscretions and insults from enemies in the process, the company has started thinking about how you can undo its work.
Google wants to help restore some of the privacy that it and other online companies, most notably Facebook, have encouraged you to surrender for the sake of self-expression or in exchange for free services. Google wants to help you manage your online reputation and to provide guidance about how to do so.
On Wednesday, Google released a new tool called Me on the Web, which allows you to monitor your identity online and offers strategies for keeping personal information out of Google's index--don't post--and for having third-party sites remove unwanted information.
The situation might be likened to the way in which the financial industry, having under-invested in security and pushed against regulation, sells the fix for its insecurity to customers in the form of credit monitoring. But the analogy breaks down when you consider that Google isn't charging for privacy monitoring and that Internet users often deserve some of the blame for their lack of privacy.
Me on the Web is accessible to Google Account holders through their Google Dashboard, a collection of user data and settings associated with Google's various online services. It's a modest tool for what to many seems a massive task, unpublishing unflattering information that you or someone else has made public online.
Me on the Web provides a list of links from your Google Profile, which shouldn't be a surprise since you alone are authorized to add such links. And it offers a link to set up Google Alerts, which provide notification emails when Google indexes news stories or Web pages that mention you in some form or another. Two other links lead to Google help pages containing information on how to manage your online identity and how to remove unwanted content. A last link explains Me on the Web itself.
While some of Google's advice may seem self-serving--"Search for your name on Google to see what information about you comes up" and "Create a Google Profile"--it's also providing a valuable service by helping users understanding where information about them resides and who can authorize removal of that information.
Many people assume that Google can remove unwanted information from the Web, but the company is limited to removing information from its index, when appropriate under its policies. Preventing unwanted information from appearing in Google search results will not remove that information from the Web or from other search engines.
Google is wading into an emerging industry, online reputation management. But Me on the Web falls short of what more serious online reputation management services offer.
Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, which provides a more comprehensive set of reputation management and privacy services, considers Google's effort to be fairly basic and suggests it's more about making Google Profiles competitive with business social network LinkedIn than about a serious foray into reputation management.
Even so, he welcomes Google's arrival. "The good news about what Google has done is they've validated the existence of our company," he said in an interview. At the same time, he considers Google's low-key response to be a sign of internal ambivalence about the company's willingness to deny itself the data that is its lifeblood.
Fertik doesn't really buy the proposition that consumers should accept some blame for the lack of privacy online. "There's simply no way to keep up with the invasion of privacy that happens hourly on the Internet," he said. "Users cannot know how much their data is being used for purposes they can never identify. The entire ecosystem of the Web is stacked against them."
Reputation.com, which has grown to 140 employees in about four years, tries to help customers regain some measure of control over their online information. It goes beyond providing educational resources by removing information from databases, blocking cookies that collect information, and blocking junk mail that comes to people's houses, among other services. It also makes a browser plug-in called uprotect that allows users to encrypt posts on social networks like Facebook and to have posts expire after a certain period.
"You can have a half-life for your Internet and social media existence," said Fertik.
Contrary to some reports that focus on high-profile people using Reputation.com, Fertik insists that the vast of majority of customers are not celebrities and tend to favor the company's free services. While he declined to disclose his company's financial performance, he said that revenue has been growing by a factor of six in recent years.
Maybe there's a market for privacy after all.
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