At Georgetown University's law school, a story about a job interviewer questioning a student about pictures from his Facebook profile made some people think twice about their Internet alter egos. According to the widely spread rumor, the employer pulled out printouts of photos from the student's Facebook page and asked him how he intended to represent the law firm in public, considering he posted a picture of himself giving someone the middle finger for the world to see.
"There were a lot of rumors about how it happened -- some say the interviewer made a joke out of it, others say it was a serious, 'What the hell were you thinking,' type of thing," said Georgetown law student Amrutha Nanjappa.
Regardless, she said, "it definitely made me re-evaluate my own profile."
Not scoring a job offer because of a too revealing Facebook or MySpace profile is bad. But the consequences of unintended eyes clicking on personal photos or information can be far worse, as a young woman at a top law school found out when someone posted her Facebook pictures on a law school student's message board.
"There were a bunch of pictures of me that somebody posted from my Facebook page saying 'Check out this girl at this law school,' said the student, who asked that her name and identifying details be withheld.
"They were saying really damaging things about me," she continued. "Men talking about what they'd like to do to me sexually ... Even stupid things how ugly my hair looks when it's curly. They scrutinized me on every level and it's been really damaging for my self-esteem."
The student asserted her pictures were not scandalous or revealing, and that the security settings of her Facebook profile allowed only people she approved as friends to see her pictures.
Desperate to get her photos removed from the forum and the other sites that had posted them, she contacted ReputationDefender, a self-proclaimed PR firm for the average person.
"Our motto is search and destroy," said Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender's founder and CEO. "We go out and find everything about you or your kid on the Internet and if you want us to, we seek to get it removed."
So far, ReputationDefender has removed 50 links associated with the law school student from the Internet. Like her, many of the firm's clients were burned when photographs they posted on social networking sites showed up elsewhere.
"I can't tell you how many clients we have that are on some prominent social networking site," Fertik said. "How many times, routinely, those photographs end up on the Internet along with really salacious commentary with women, obnoxious commentary with men."
A recent graduate of Harvard Law school, Fertik uses copyright law to help initiate litigation against Web sites that refuse to remove a client's content. Fertik doesn't believe in hacking sites or destroying legitimate news articles, but he does maintain that even in cyberspace, people have a right to privacy.
"Whereas we used to say these things about one another in high school and middle school and throw them out at the end of the day on a piece of paper, they're now on the Internet and permanent and public," he said. "It takes two minutes to say someone's got herpes, to say someone's dumb, to say someone's cheating on their exam. The downstream consequences of this are real. It becomes a scarlet letter for the rest of your life."