Employers, including law
firms, frequently do Google searches as part of due diligence checks on
prospective employees. According to a December survey by the Ponemon
Institute, a privacy research organization, roughly half of U.S. hiring
officials use the Internet in vetting job applications. About one-third
of the searches yielded content used to deny a job, the survey said.
The legal hiring market is very competitive. What could tip the balance
is the appearance that a candidate is a lightning rod for controversy,
said Mark Rasch, a Washington lawyer and consultant who specializes in
The trend has even spawned a new service,
ReputationDefender, whose mission is to search for damaging content
online and destroy it on behalf of clients. Generally, the law exempts
site operators from liability for the content posted by others, though
it does not prevent them from removing offensive items.
people the Internet has become a scarlet letter, an albatross," said
Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender's chief executive. The company is
launching a campaign to get AutoAdmit to cleanse its site and encourage
law schools to adopt a professional conduct code for students.
Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
privacy and free speech advocacy group, said anonymous cyber-writers
can be sued for defamation. A judge can require a Web site host or
operator to disclose a user's identifying information. Also, he said,
the Internet allows those who feel slandered to put forth their own
point of view. "The cure to bad speech is more speech," he said.
chats sometimes include photos taken from women's Facebook pages, and
in the Yale student's case, one person threatened to sexually violate
her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear
that she was taking part in the discussion.
"I didn't understand
what I'd done to deserve it," said the student. "I also felt kind of
scared because it was someone in my community who was threatening
physical and sexual violence and I didn't know who."
e-mailed the site's administrators and asked them to remove the
material. She said she received no response. Then she tried contacting
Google, which simply cited its policy that the Web site's administrator
must remove the material to clear out the search results.
which also uses the domain name xoxohth.com and which hosts
Google-served ads, was launched in 2004. Cohen and his partner, Anthony
Ciolli, cite First Amendment ideals. "We are very strong believers in
the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas . . . and almost
never censor content, no matter how abhorrent it may be," they wrote in
a posting on someone else's blog. The vast majority of chat threads,
they wrote, are school-related. "The only time you'll see 20 or so
racist threads on the site is if you proactively search for them."
said the success of the site's message boards — they claim 800,000 to
1 million unique visitors a month — owes to its free, anonymous
exchange of ideas. "In fact, one finds overall a much deeper and much
more mature level of insight in a community where the ugliest depths of
human opinion are confronted, rather than ignored," they wrote.
One chat thread included a sexual joke about a female Holocaust victim.
another comment, a user said a particular woman had no right to ask
that the threads be removed. "If we want to objectify, criticize and
[expletive] on [expletive] like her, we should be able to."
another posting, a participant rejected the idea that photos be removed
on moral grounds: "We're lawyers and lawyers-in-training, dude. Of
course we follow the law, not morals."
"I definitely don't agree
with a lot of the conduct on the board," Ciolli said in an interview.
But, he said, only Cohen, who created the message board, has authority
to have the comments removed. Cohen, in a separate interview, said he
will not "selectively remove" offensive comments, and that when he has
attempted to do so, he was threatened with litigation for "perceived
Another Yale law student learned a month ago
that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her
name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in
a separate contest site — with links posted on AutoAdmit chats — to
select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which
nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and
comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a
dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google
"I felt completely objectified," that woman said. It
was, she said, "as if they're stealing part of my character from me."
The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she
now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged
classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.
the contest site owner to let him shut down the "Top 14" for privacy
concerns, Cohen said. "I think we deserve a golden star for what we
did," Cohen said.
The two men said that some of the women who
complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for
example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites,
such as Facebook or MySpace.
Cohen said he no longer keeps
identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage
lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their
real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if
they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."