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Alex Beam

You can run, but you can't hide, on Web

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / July 28, 2008

Question: Can you hide on the Internet?

Many people have the opposite concern. Wired magazine devotes this month's cover to an attractive young woman named Julia Allison who set out to achieve Internet fame by targeting a few key online "choke points" - widely read gossip blogs - for exposure. She must be famous. She is on the cover of a national magazine!

Wired understands the Allison-in-Wonderland nature of genuine Web fame: Allison is a "celebrity," and she is "nobody." Welcome to the Web.

But suppose you would really like to be nobody?

The same day I read the Wired story, I noticed an article written by Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein last September. He was looking for a filmmaker who had made some "webisode" documentaries for then-presidential candidate John Edwards. Smith wrote: "A search for the filmmaker, Rielle Hunter, proved that Google does, in fact, have its limitations. No hits. The same held true with Facebook and MySpace - a bizarre level of anonymity for someone in the movie business."

Ms. Hunter, then and now, had ample reason not to be found. Websites had begun reporting rumors that she had more than a business relationship with Edwards. Last week, the National Enquirer ambushed her and Edwards in the early hours at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Her erstwhile Internet anonymity is now gone forever.

But the question remains: Could a successful professional like Hunter have managed to hide on the Internet? Could you?

"The answer is yes and no," says MIT's network manager Jeffrey Schiller. "You can't completely erase your presence, but you can make yourself hard to find." Far from all public records have been put on the Web in searchable databases, for instance. And the most basic records - IRS and Social Security data - are theoretically private. The Internet has even engineered what I call a "Passover program," called robots.txt. You can ask search engines to skate over your entire website, or specific directories in your website, and most will comply.

For the moment, Google is the 800-pound gorilla bestriding the Net. "Google doesn't really forget," says Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. One could say the Internet itself doesn't forget: Since 1996, the Internet Archive (archive.org) has been trying to preserve the billions of websites that have passed through the world's keyboards. So-called "reputation cleaners" like ziggs.com can change the order in which Google refers to you, but that's not the same as becoming invisible. The Silicon Valley-based monolith is not entirely inflexible. If you ask nicely, using a help menu it provides, Google may remove its picture of your house from its new Street View product.

Responding to allegations of copyright infringement, Google will often remove material, and then file the takedown request at a website called chillingeffects.org. But if there are nasty postings about you on the Internet, Chillingeffects founder Wendy Seltzer explains that service providers like Google and Yahoo! don't have to remove them; they have legal immunity under the Communications Decency Act. "My impression is that they don't respond to legal bullying," Seltzer says.

A Google spokeswoman confirms that "Google does not remove allegedly defamatory material from our search results," except pursuant to a court order.

So can you throw a Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility around your Internet activities? " 'Don't look for me' is technically a very hard order to define," says Schiller's colleague, Daniel Weitzner, a research scientist at MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence lab. "What would you even ask? 'Don't look for pages that are mean to me?' It's hard to define what you would mean by being invisible - can you prevent people from talking about you? The Web puts everyone in this public figure status."

I told Weitzner about one of my recent forays into privacy invasion, stalking reclusive Cambridge resident David Rockefeller Jr. on the Internet for a story. Call me old-fashioned, but parachuting onto the website of his singing group felt a little icky. "That's a fundamental change in the way our identities are constructed," Weitzner responded. "The practical obscurity that we all had is necessarily disappearing. Efforts to put the genie back in the bottle and create ways for people to hide again are not likely to work."

Unknown on the Web? "There are vanishingly few people who fall into that category," he says. For most of us, it may be too late to hide.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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