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Watch What You Post!

Personal Web content can come back to haunt you

In a civil litigation case in Toronto, a judge ordered a man to disclose the content of his Facebook profile, though the man had limited access to the postings to friends only. The man is suing over injuries from a car accident, claiming his enjoyment of life has been lessened. The defense hopes the profile may tell a whole different truth.

Posting vicious messages about someone else on an Internet site can also cost you—big time. A Louisiana woman accused Sue Scheff, a 47-year-old resident of Weston, Fla., who ran a home-based resource service for parents of troubled teens, of being a “con artist” and a “crook.” Scheff sued and was awarded $11.3 million in a defamation lawsuit, one of the largest such judgments awarded over Internet postings. But even after all that, she says that to this day her Google search results still generate links that have extremely negative comments on them.

Scheff, who has chronicled her experience in a book,Google Bomb (being released in September), says absolutely no one is immune to what she went through, adding that she constantly gets e-mails from victims. “Limit the amount of information you provide on the Internet,” she now advises others. “The Internet is not only an educational tool, it can be a lethal weapon,” she says.

Professional and personal harm

Cyberspace postings could also cost you your job. An Oregon mayor lost her office after photos of her—construed by some to be overly suggestive—surfaced on MySpace. A Texas high school teacher was forced to leave her position after students discovered racy pictures of her on Flickr, an online photo-sharing site. Others are being passed over for jobs or promotions because of their online content, which in some cases merely doesn’t meet the screener’s personal bias. A 2008 survey by online job site found that one in five hiring managers admit to using social networking sites to investigate job candidates and that a third of candidates were dropped from consideration because of what was found about them.

And although they may be unaware of it, many social networkers and Internet users also pay a huge personal price for posting information and images. There are cases of young adults who are declined college scholarships because of a photo of them holding up a beer can. Individuals are denied health and life insurance because the insurers gleaned information about their lifestyles that contradicts what’s on their applications.

Other Internet users tempt arrest and incarceration. Seven men from Maine posted a video of themselves firebombing a vacant building. They not only revealed their faces on the video, they also identified themselves in rolling credits at the end. They’re all facing arson charges.

Even personal relationships can be affected. In one well-circulated example, British actress Tricia Walsh-Smith lashed out at her soon-to-be ex, Broadway producer Philip Smith, on YouTube, citing his less-than-stellar performance in the bedroom. Later, a Manhattan judge called her video stunt “a calculated and callous campaign” just before booting her out of the couple’s posh Park Avenue apartment.

User, protect thyself!

“Cyberspace is so extensive and so fluid that it’s impossible to describe all the ways speech may be used to harm your personal and professional reputation,” says Susan Brenner, distinguished professor of law and technology at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio. A landmark 1997 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court left the door wide open by giving the Internet the same free speech protection as traditional print publishers. The court’s ruling struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which by imposing broadcast-style regulations on Internet content had held website providers liable for distributing obscene or defamatory material.

If the onus is on the user, why aren’t people applying to cyberspace the same level of common sense that has served them well in the bricks-and-mortar world? A few steps can help you protect yourself:

1. Be especially wary of sharing your Social Security number, driver’s licence number, account numbers, credit card numbers and biographical information such as mother’s maiden name, which is a big boon for identity thieves. “There’s no privacy on the Internet,” says Sally B. Hurme, a consumer affairs expert with AARP. “Every person in the world has access to the information you post about yourself and can do anything they want with the information for many years to come.”

2. Use software programs to protect against viruses, spyware and malware and set them to automatically update and scan. This should also be done with your operating system; and keep your firewall turned on.

3. Unless you initiate it, don’t automatically trust any communication or request, even if it looks legitimate. Looks can be deceiving, especially on the Internet.

4. Keep your passwords secure and routinely change them. Don’t use real words or anything that contains personal references like pets’ names and birthdays.

5. Curtail the posting of personal images and videos; they can be manipulated and circulated to create an undesirable visual representation of you.

6. Routinely look up combinations of your name, birth date, telephone number and other identifiable information in different search engines. If you find anything objectionable, take steps to have it removed.

For more tips on how to protect yourself online, visit the Federal Trade Commission website. AARP members can also visit Reputation Defender, considered the pioneer online-reputation company, and click on “Sign Up” and enter the code “AARP” for a free trial to discover how much data is available about them on the Internet.

Risha Gotlieb is a writer based in Aurora, Ontario.

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