Data Privacy Day: Your Online Reputation Is on the Line

REDMOND, Wash. — Jan. 26, 2010 — People of all ages and backgrounds are sharing more of their lives today through social networks, blogs, photo- and video-sharing, and other online services.

Most of the time it’s a fun, entertaining way to socialize. But it can also land you in hot water. Headlines about students expelled from nursing school for blogging about their patients, for example, illustrate the risk of sharing too much in cyberspace.

Julie Inman-Grant, director of Internet privacy and safety for Microsoft, says that one’s reputation online can be either an asset or a liability, depending on how it is managed.

According to Microsoft’s Julie Inman-Grant, director of Internet privacy and safety, such high-profile troubles underscore a growing disconnect between people’s confidence in their online reputations and how information posted online is being used, for better or worse.

“While use of the Internet has evolved dramatically over the past decade, our understanding of how online personas can affect real-world prospects has not necessarily kept pace,” she says. “You really do need to be vigilant, but at the same time, there is a real opportunity here as well. Fortunately, some simple steps can help ensure your online reputation is an asset rather than a liability.”

Indeed, recent research shows many people are not aware of just how important their online reputation is. Projecting the right online profile can make the difference between getting hired and getting rejected by an employer, for example.

To help spread the word about this emerging issue, online reputation is the focus of this year’s Data Privacy Day, an international event held each year on Jan. 28. This year Inman-Grant and others will gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss practical steps people can take to better manage their online reputations.

The event will feature a keynote address from Michael Fertik, CEO of Silicon Valley-based ReputationDefender and a noted expert in online reputation management. A featured panel discussion will include Microsoft’s Director of Privacy Strategy Brendon Lynch, iKeepSafe’s Marsali Hancock, the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper, Future of Privacy Forum’s Jules Polonetsky, and the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Nat Wood.

“Regardless of whether you’re a student, parent, job-seeker or retiree, your online presence is important,” says Hancock, whose organization, iKeepSafe, works with corporations, nonprofits and policy leaders to promote the safe and healthy use of online information. “Whether they are aware or not, people make decisions every day online that can have long-lasting consequences.”

Research Shows Casual Attitudes Contrast With Real Repercussions

As part of the event, Microsoft is also releasing two commissioned research studies conducted by Cross-Tab Marketing Services. The first outlines the ways human resources professionals worldwide are using personal, yet publicly available, online information when screening candidates. The second examines consumers’ attitudes toward their online reputations. Twelve hundred interviews were conducted for each study in the U.S., U.K., Germany and France.

Inman-Grant says Microsoft’s goal in commissioning the research was to gain a better understanding of people’s attitudes toward their online reputation and the subsequent impact on their lives.

Some of the results raised eyebrows at Microsoft. For example, 83 percent of consumers polled said they believe they have some control over their online reputation, but less than half consider their reputation every time they post information. Only 32 percent consider the reputations of others.

“One of our main findings is a gap between people’s sense of control and the steps they take to actively manage their online identity,” says Inman-Grant.

Part of the problem, she says, is that people may not fully realize how that information can be used. More than a third of respondents said they are not concerned that their online reputation may affect their personal or professional lives, and almost half said they believe it is inappropriate for potential employers to review job candidates’ online photos and videos.

But according to Inman-Grant, whether you believe it’s appropriate or not, the Internet is a public domain, and information about you is being used by human resources (HR) professionals and others whose job is to screen applicants: 79 percent of HR professionals surveyed in the United States, 59 percent in Germany and 47 percent in the U.K. reported reviewing such information when examining potential job candidates. In the U.S., 84 percent categorized online reputation information as one of the top two factors they consider when reviewing a comprehensive set of candidate information.

And they are not only reviewing the information; they are acting on it. Seventy percent of those surveyed in the U.S. have rejected a candidate based on online information. Figures for the U.K., while lower, are still significant at 41 percent. In both cases, the top factor for rejection was unsuitable photos and videos online.

“People would like to draw clear delineations between their personal and professional lives online, but the fact is that these lines are blurring,” Inman-Grant says. “Our study found that HR professionals are regularly using information about candidates found on the Internet, and this can have significant repercussions.”

Become Your Own Online Publicist

iKeepSafe’s Hancock says she frequently hears stories about people being denied college admission, losing a job opportunity or experiencing other negative consequences as a result of content posted on the Web.

But it’s not all bad news. She says the issue of online reputation is a double-edged sword with just as much power to help as hinder people in their personal and professional lives.

“Just as you can lose job opportunities by what you post, you can also increase your odds of receiving a job opportunity or acceptance to college,” Hancock says. “So the message is not don’t post, but rather, be smart and active in managing what’s posted online about you. Create a presence in the digital environment that leaves the kind of impression you want.”

Inman-Grant, who has worked on Internet privacy and safety issues at Microsoft since the mid-1990s, says that the most important part of managing your online reputation is simply to stay involved and active. “These are important life events — getting a job or getting into college — so we want to encourage people to manage their online reputation more effectively. You can be your own best publicist.”

Inman-Grant says that while many people do take action to help protect their online reputations, it is largely limited to blocking access to online profiles and other data. Not surprisingly, the study released today shows that fewer respondents take more proactive measures, such as searching their own names through Bing or another search engine (42 percent), employing alert features for notification of new information (13 percent), or contacting a Web site owner or administrator to remove untrue or unflattering content (5 percent).

“It’s clear that online reputations can have a demonstrable economic benefit or liability,” she says. “If people don’t take the opportunity to create a personal ‘brand’ online, they are virtually leaving an entire section of a job application blank.”

To help people take a more active role, Microsoft has posted new guidance leading up to Data Privacy Day, offering some simple methods to better manage online data.

Of course, no matter how vigilant a person may be, there are times when unflattering information may be posted by someone else. But according to iKeepSafe’s Hancock, there are many things people can do to improve their online persona and restore their reputation.

“There is a terms-of-service agreement for every social-networking site, and you can always respond back to the service provider to report abuse,” she says. “Also, if you have something that’s negative, make a conscious effort to create more content and connect with other people, so you can minimize the potential negative impact when someone searches your name.”

When all else fails, she says, there are groups that can help, such as Fertik’s well-known ReputationDefender, an organization that works to help people improve their online reputations.

But in the end, the experts agree: The most important thing is simply to be involved.

“You have the opportunity to build a good online reputation,” says Hancock. “So first and foremost, make it a priority.”

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