Privacy, The Net and You

Over the past five years I’ve had plenty of personal motivation for pondering privacy, especially as it relates to the internet and employment and similar important matters. Recent news stories provoked further thought, which spilled over into words here.

First I heard about the Cameron Barrett story. He worked for a marketing firm in Michigan, and as part of his job he trained coworkers on the internet and web design. During some of the internet training he mentioned his personal web site, and stated that he wrote fiction as a hobby. Two female coworkers visited the site, read his fiction—some of which is apparently violent and/or sexual in nature. The women were very offended by the fiction—which they read voluntarily—and insisted that their employer fire Mr. Barrett or they’d quit. In November 1997 the company fired him because of the incident, despite the fact that the site was a personal one, it had nothing to do with his employment, and he didn’t force anyone to visit it or read the fiction. The story seems to have really hit the press in January, with stories in the New York Times and from the Associated Press.

News articles about Mr. Barrett’s story often mentioned another webmaster, Lizz Sommerfield. She was the webmaster for a small company who knew that she had her own web site. It had been, apparently, part of the portfolio they’d seen when she was hired. A coworker (male, this time) visited the site and tried to get her fired because there are photos of her on the site wearing nothing but leopard-print underwear. There was quite a ruckus, and after much deliberation she wasn’t fired—but she was ordered to completely remove the company’s name from the site. She was blamed for the disruption, even though she’d done nothing wrong. Unhappy with the work environment, she left the company for a better job with a more internet-savvy company shortly afterwards.

In both cases, the contents of purely personal web sites negatively affected these people’s careers. There was no complaint about their work or work habits—just about the content of their web sites. You can even call this a free speech issue, because our precious "right to free speech" as guaranteed in the U.S. constitution only deals with restrictions by the government—not by private employers. Were there employers right or wrong? I think their employers were, at the least, foolish. I strongly disagree with the actions of Barrett’s employer, and I can’t blame Sommerfield for leaving a company that would treat her as her former employer did.

Still, I’ve long known that what one says on the net can affect your career. I may have been more aware of it from day one because I worked for an internet service provider (MindSpring) and part of my job included interacting with customers in newsgroups and email. I knew that I was "in uniform" as a MindSpring employee anywhere on the net, as long as my comments could be connected with the Cynthia who worked at MindSpring. While MindSpring was a very liberal employer, and I had little worries about using the internet personally, I was still very careful about my net activity. After I resigned I was able to interact much more freely—but I am still careful. After all, when screening prospective employees it was routine for us to look at their personal web sites, and sometimes even their history of posting to newsgroups, as part of the hiring process. I used the same techniques when hiring for other internet-related firms—it was certainly relevant, giving us a snapshot of their temperament, communications skills, and often their technical abilities with regards to internet use. I assume that prospective employers will do the same research on my background, and indeed some others are starting to realize that, as well. It’s less likely if you aren’t in a computer or internet-related field, but I think it will become much more common in time.

My feelings are really mixed on this subject. I am, in many ways, difficult to offend—I don’t much care what anybody is into as long as it takes place in private between consenting adults. I respect the right of others to pursue those interests, to communicate with others about them and to publish anything they like on the internet or in other media. I don’t want it pushed in my face/mailbox, but I’m not going to deny their right to publish their stories and pictures. I expect the same consideration. I also believe that any reasonable business employs people based on their professional abilities and actual performance, rather than their outside activities, appearance, sexual preference, spiritual beliefs, etc. I know, however, that the reality of our world is that appearance and interests and beliefs are weighed by employers, current and prospective. Is it right? No. Am I trying to change it? Yes.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t personally publish anything I wouldn’t want a potential employer to see when forming an initial impression of me. It’s a line that would be drawn differently for everyone, a matter of personal conscience and, in many ways, political statements. I’ve chosen to have a personal web site, knowing that some people can find offense in durn near anything. I’ve revealed quite a lot about myself, and realize that some people will take that information out of context, and it might be used against me. Still, talking about size acceptance, which surprises many people, isn’t taking a huge chance—anybody who interviews me is going to see that I’m a large woman. I couldn’t hide it if I wanted to, so why hesitate to express my views on the subject, however unconventional? I’d rather not waste time talking to someone who wouldn’t hire a fat person anyway, so I’m not worried about the effect of that information no my career. Being honest about a few other things in my past—like being a survivor of sexual abuse, for instance, or even the fact that I’m a pagan—is riskier. It isn’t something I’d bring up in an interview, but it isn’t something I deny or over which I feel any embarassment. Could it hurt me? Yes. Will I stop? No. Would someone be justified in firing me over it? I don’t think so, but this is a right-to-work state, and I don’t think I’d have any legal recourse if they did so.

Still, I’m not in the same shoes Barrett and Summerfield are. I don’t write erotica. I don’t take or pose for photographs (other than the normal family and friend snapshots). I don’t paint or sculpture or otherwise create anything that I’d be denying vital parts in myself by not sharing online in a way that I think might damage my employability. If I were, I’d probably feel it necessary to create a totally different persona and keep it ruthlessly separate from anything connected to me—and I imagine I’d resent it. As much as I disagree with it, our society has some terribly dysfunctional attitudes with regards to sex in particular. Sex-related information is simply more likely, as I see it, to cause one problems in your career than anything else you might publish on the net, and that’s one fight I don’t need right now.

The internet didn’t create this dilemma, but it makes it more immediate—because it is so easy to find information here. Twenty years ago Barrett could have been publishing his stories in various publications and it is unlikely that his employer would ever have learned of them. Summerfield might have had her photos published in a pin-up magazine or something similar—but unless she mentioned her employer’s name, who would have reason to know? The information would not have been as easily accessible to anyone. Potential employers are unlikely to do a publication search. Today it takes a few minutes to pop "Lizz Sommerfield" into a search engine and find her in all her glory.

Unfortunately, you can also find information about people with similar names. And, because it is so easy to publish anything on the internet, and to forge posts to appear to have come from someone, you might even find utterly false information. Yes, most of the time a post that claims to be from soandso@his.email.address will truly be from the person who you know has that email address—but there are exceptions, and those are notable. I fear that the kind of harassment I’ve experienced personally—having someone repeatedly forge messages in my name advertising me as a prostitute, seeking sexual communications or relations, or inviting people to my web site to see pornographic material, even publishing nude pictures that were presented as being of me—will become as common as scrawling someone’s name on a bathroom wall as the popularity and accessiblity of the internet continues to grow. What separates this harassment from the old bathroom wall is that the scribbles could be cleaned and all traces would be gone. When I applied for a job the human resources folks wouldn’t find a copy of the grafitti or have any reason to think I wrote it. Because of the archives that keep internet grafitti current, and the ease of searching those archives and the web, it is far more likely that Ms. Human Resources is going to come across a post directing people to contact me for prostitution services and decide I’m simply not the sort of person they want associate with their firm—despite the fact that the post was a forgery and had nothing to do with me.

Is there a way to contain the damage? Well, having everyone who does internet research to screen employees trained in discerning what is or is not a reputable source would be a beginning. I don’t think it would take care of the problem completely, because for many people there would still be some little smudge left on the mental image of the potential employee even if potentially negative information came from a wholly unreliable source. So no, I don’t have any answers—but I think it’s important to raise the questions anyway.

Originally published February 18, 2003

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