“Reputation Defender”?

by Richard Kostelanetz (March 2013)

Often on radio both public and private I hear advertisements for Reputation Defender, which promises to remove from the Internet negative information about prospective clients. As a veteran writer initially fearing the suppression of critical opinion, I went online and quickly opened the Wikipedia entry on Reputation.com. On 10 February 2013, I discovered this critique that I remember seeing a whole year before: "The company received publicity in the United States [n 2007] when it managed to remove death photographs of Nikki Catsouras from about 300 of some 400 Internet sites hosting them.”

Successful while that might initially seem, what undermines this purported achievement is acknowledged in the next Wikipedia sentence: “The photos spread to new sites, and [the company's CEO Michael] Fertik acknowledged their removal as ‘a virtually unwinnable battle’.” In short, given the possibilities of Internet freedom, plus Wikipedia as a monument to free speech, RD’s attempted censorship was in this case was not just a failure but finally counter-productive.

The Wikipedia entry continues: "When damaging content is found, the company tries to get it removed from the offending websites through methods such as sending letters to the site owners asking them to remove the content. In 2006, Susan Crawford, a cyberlaw specialist on the faculty of Cardozo Law School, commented that when contacted in that fashion, ‘most people will take materials down just to avoid the hassle of dealing with possible litigation.'” The converse truth, however, is that Fertik's company can't affect those immune to threats of lawyer thuggery, because they have no vulnerable assets, they can circulate the revelations to other websites, they are professional writers whom other writers will routinely support, or, say, they will soon die.

My brief research incidentally demonstrates that RD was evidently unable to remove negative information about itself, though surely Fertik and Co. must have tried. Thus, why should any aggrieved sucker expect RD to do better for its clients? May we further conclude that "Reputation Defender" is a scam designed to exploit negative feelings without guaranteeing success? Once this critique appears in print, may my publisher note if it is harassed.

The location and amount of the promotions reminded me of another company named Rosetta Stone, which resembled RD in offering to make easy something normally difficult—in this case, learning a new language. Do a Google for reviews of its product, and you’ll notice that the top searches contain a gaggle of notices that are not just discouraging but yet more condemnatory. Simply, it does not succeed in making easy the learning of another language.

After Rosetta Stone issued stock at $18 apiece, its shares rose to $32 or so only to sink since to near $11.00 recently, somewhat in response to reported losses. I now suspect that the RS advertisements were meant less to sell their bum product than to impress listeners wealthy enough to purchase the stock. After all, promoters of a bum product can make money only by paying themselves exorbitant salaries and then by selling the shares they awarded themselves before the product went public.

As RD’s ads target rich people and companies with surplus money, its ulterior purpose must be redistributing wealth, in this case principally to itself. More power to them, may I say, as long as their rip-offs don’t undermine the freedom of communication made possible by the Internet. Recalling A. J. Liebling’s caveat that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” may I suggest that the Internet gives everyone the power to be his own publisher. If someone criticizes you on line, consider replying there, if you can or dare. RD will never be able to eliminate that opportunity.

May I predict that Fertik and crew will, like Rosetta Stone before it, soon make an Initial Public Offering and then that, if their shares find customers, their value will decline. Indeed, I’ll wager on it.

Richard Kostelanetz is completing another collection of mostly political essays tentatively titled “Deeper, Further, and Behind.”

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