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The Privacy Advisor | The pitfalls of reputation economics: A personal perspective Related reading: Book review: 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed'

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Not all mistakes in life are equal, and not all mistakes affect our reputation in the same way, if at all. But in the digital age, one wrong move can cause irreparable harm to a person's reputation. How can the average person truly maintain their reputation if they've been smeared online?

"My reputation is forever ingrained in the digital world," Crisis Management Consultant Michael Kydd said during his keynote speech last week at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium in Toronto, Canada. "If you've made a mistake, and it's online, you can guarantee it will remain there." 

For Kydd, the consequences of online reputation-management are not merely theoretical. He's been living through the consequences for a couple years now. It all began when he was working as a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He didn't mince words about what he did. "I was wrong," he said. 

The school suspended Kydd in January 2015 after he admitted to two intimate encounters with a then-38-year-old distance-learning student. The relationship, which happened while Kydd was getting a divorce, was consensual, but it broke school policy. Things eventually turned sour, and an intimate photo of Kydd made its way online (for more details on the actual incident, the National Post provides a good report). After a lengthy investigation by law enforcement, police declined to press any charges against him. 

But his troubles were just getting started. 

The effects of his mistake hit home one night when his daughter was playing around with Siri on his phone. "Siri, what's the weather like in Orlando? Siri, what's the weather like in Ottawa? Siri, who is Michael Kydd?" 

Kydd quickly intervened before his daughter could see the many indexed articles about her father replete with phrases like “sex pics” and “dick pics” in the same sentence as her father’s name and image. A pure nightmare for the former instructor, he found himself pulling away from everyday society. 

"I became a hermit. I hung black curtains on the windows and ate chips and frozen pizza everyday," he told a silent crowd in Toronto. "I worked hard for my career before making that mistake." Gone with his job was his six-figure salary and his reputation. 

"People will always forgive you," Kydd said, "but they'll never forget." 

Kydd spent his reclusive days reading books on reputation economics. "I bombarded myself with the literature," he said. "These books were all written by crisis-management people, but the problem I found in reading these 50 or so books" was an economic one. He said the books focused on, for example, the corporate executive being fired from the job for a poor decision. Of course, they'd walk away with a hefty severance package and maybe some stock options, not having to worry about putting food in the fridge.

That wasn't the case for Kydd. To this day, he struggles to pay his bills and only sees his kids once a week, because he can't afford to feed them day-in and day-out. 

Kydd said reputation is now a commodity that can be bought or sold, but it's an unaffordable commodity for most. For the wealthy, however, reputation is affordable, or as Kydd put it: "The wealthy have a means to spend their way into obscurity." 

He said maintaining reputation-management software that truly works — think de-indexing bad links and flooding search results with good links — costs between $25,000 and $300,000. And for those trying to game search results for themselves? Good luck with that, he said, because Google changes its search algorithms every three to six months. 

That's why, he said, Casey Affleck can get in trouble for alleged domestic abuse, but still win an Oscar, for example. Or Bill O'Reilly can pay out millions to keep sexual harassment lawsuits out of court but still receive a $25 million severance package. 

But what about average people?

In addition to himself, Kydd pointed to a long list of non-celebrities who had their reputations — and lives — ruined. At the top of his list was Richard Jewell. For those old enough to remember, Jewell was thought to be the bomber during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He was a former police officer working security during the incident. Right as the internet was going mainstream, Jewell's name flooded the news. He was eventually found innocent, but his life was ruined, and he died just years later in his early 40s. 

Often people are acquitted of the crimes for which they're accused, but they still suffer the consequences. Kydd calls these latter stages the three stages of dissociation. Communal dissociation is the first stage, in which self-esteem erodes and the individual withdraws from the community (think black curtains and frozen pizza). Societal dissociation comprises anger and a further erosion of self-esteem. Finally, Kydd said, it's complete economic collapse. 

"This is what happens to average people when they loose their reputations," he warned. 

He said companies should think about this as they design their products and services. It's easy to get caught up in policies and forget about how real people are affected.

Based on his research, Kydd also said 90 percent of U.S. job recruiters and hiring managers recommend googling candidates as a best practice; 85 percent say positive online content of a given candidate influences hiring decisions, and 70 percent have rejected candidates based on online information about that person.  

Kydd said it's important to know your employees. "They may be suffering, and if you're not able to help them, or have a good employment structure, that person could make a mistake that could cost your whole organization money. Think about what just happened to United Airlines," he warned. 

Personally, Kydd is fighting back. He's hired Toronto-based lawyer Donna Wilson (featured in this interview last year with the IAPP's Sam Pfeifle), and filed a notice of action against the former student, Twitter, Bell Media (its affiliate CTV posted the intimate photo of Kydd), and the university. He's funding the suit through donations at GoFundMe. 

"We have to do better to protect people," Kydd concluded. "And we have to do better as people, and not make the kinds of mistakes I made." 

Top image: Michael Kydd speaking at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium 2017. 

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