On UC Davis and Erasing Things from the Internet

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This week, I and much of the internet learned that UC Davis paid at least $175,000 to a Maryland firm by the name of Nevis & Associates to disassociate the pepper spray incident of 2011 — in which footage of a campus police officer very casually and callously covering student Occupy protesters with pepper spray at close range was caught on video and disseminated — from both the name of the university and its chancellor in Google search results. While I first read about it on Gizmodo, the quotes that shocked me the most came from the Sacramento Bee:

“Nevins & Associates is prepared to create and execute an online branding campaign designed to clean up the negative attention the University of California, Davis, and Chancellor Katehi have received related to the events that transpired in November 2011,” a six-page proposal from Nevins promised.

“Online evidence and the venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the Chancellor are being filtered through the 24-hour news cycle, but it is at a tepid pace,” the proposal said.

The objectives Nevins outlined for the contract included “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”

The firm planned to eradicate “the venomous rhetoric” by using the popular tactic of flooding search results with positive coverage or coverage that is off this particular topic. And the firm is part of a burgeoning industry that you may have heard of elsewhere in the news — reputation clean-up. Reputation.com is a popular example, with personal plans starting at $3,000 per year.

My brain essentially ripped in two on this subject. Sometimes I feel like my relationship with technology and with the internet is more fraught than other technology columnists and enthusiasts I read, listen to and interact with. That might be some sort of bias, though — I couldn’t possibly feel their actual feelings because that’s not how humans work. Still, I often feel strongly in two opposite directions when it comes to privacy versus openness, the right to bear witness versus the right to be forgotten. The Gizmodo coverage of this and of Europe’s 2014 battle for the right to be forgotten calls reputation clean-up out-and-out censorship, but I think it’s often more complicated than that.

Not in this case, though, it isn’t. A public university spent public money to erase something horrendous that did, in fact, happen on their campus — an event that it’s important to witness. How far would $175,000 gone in financial aid? In hiring and training better campus police officers who wouldn’t blanket peacefully protesting students with a weapon better suited for military action? In recruiting a campus activism liaison? I dunno, literally anything that could have addressed the core reasons the students were occupying the campus in the first place? That does feel like censorship, no matter which way you slice it; it also feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of why their reputation might be marred, and a total disconnect with their students. It furthers the institution’s violence to disallow spectators and when any large organization, either public or private, tries to erase their negative history with a large sum of money, it feels very “we were always at war with Eurasia.” And of course, the logical conclusion follows: Who or what else will do what UC Davis is doing? Will the NYPD use such a service to suppress mention of Eric Garner in relation to Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked him to death? The web has never been a truly neutral or objective space, and there are already considerable and myriad systems in place that try to block “controversial” information like what UC Davis wants to scrub from ever reaching the internet — for instance, when the state blocks access to social networks that can testify to state violence, like Twitter or Youtube. But it’s worth asking where this newest step might lead.

On the other hand, what about the students doing really excellent work at UC Davis, whose work is now associated with police brutality when Googled? Can a justification be made for correcting the university’s reputation for their sakes? And what about the chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi? Sure, the Sacramento Bee reports that she’s done other things that are shady as fuck and that the students are staging a sit-in until she resigns. Perhaps she’s not a very sympathetic example, especially due to her association with the reputation-scrubbing scandal in question. But where is a line drawn between who has the right to remove information about themselves from the internet? Consider: I can tell you a story of a friend of a friend who garnered the attention of a stalker just for picking a phone at her place of work. This person, with a vendetta against her place of work, began posting articles featuring this friend of a friend’s name in really negative ways. He began combing the internet for her personal details, personal photos, and posting longwinded rants that show up when you Google her. Would it be reasonable for her place of business to pay for a service to mitigate what she’s experiencing? Should she fund her reputation clean up with her own money? Does it matter if her institution is public or private? Is it censorship to disassociate oneself from such a thing?

While digging into the history of those individuals who’ve tried to erase certain tidbits about themselves from the internet, I’ve found compelling arguments for and against the right to do so. Most of them arise not from this UC Davis debacle, but from that 2014 Right To Be Forgotten battle—a battle ultimately won in Europe. In a New Yorker article from that timeframe, a man wishes he could scrub the internet of violent accident scene photos of his decapitated daughter, leaked by professionals as a Halloween shock-joke for their friends. This seems understandable to me; I could never call a man who wants those images gone forever a proponent of censorship. The automobile accident and resultant death were so violent they didn’t even allow the family to identify the body. Bearing witness, especially in cases like this, actually does harm, to one’s own psyche and that of the family. Where is the moral or ethical value in keeping those images available for public viewing?

But those people aren’t usually the people who can benefit from deleting things from the internet, are they? Though Reputation.com did help the man whose daughter could be posthumously found and gawked at with just the search “decapitated girl,” I’m sure it cost a pretty penny. And those photos are still pretty easy to find online, solely because they didn’t hold the copyright to them. The overlap between people with “good,” moving reasons for adjusting the information available about them on the internet and those with the means to do so isn’t necessarily large.

Remember Jessi Slaughter? That was the YouTube handle of a child with a very abusive father whose angry ranting on one of their videos (“Ya dun goofed”) became a meme. Their real name is Damien Leonhardt, and they are definitely a person who could’ve benefitted from erasing a video from the internet back in 2010 when, as an elementary schooler, a viral video turned their life upside down:

The video came out over summer vacation, so the impact on Damien’s school life wasn’t immediate. However, when they came back that fall, things had changed. “I kind of lost all my friends and had to make new friends,” Damien says. “I had a clique of friends — the emo kids — in sixth grade, and none of them wanted anything to do with me after.”

Life was not kind to Damien in the following years. Not long after the video, they were placed into foster care. “My dad was really abusive toward me and my mom,” says Damien. “You kind of saw the anger issues with him in the video, and that put extra stress on the family, which made him even angrier.” In 2011, their father died of a heart attack, and in 2012, Damien moved back in with their mother in a small town in Florida.

In all that time, the harassment never totally stopped. “At first it was just comments on YouTube and stuff like that,” says Damien. “And that was like, well, it’s public and people are dicks. But when people are actively seeking your stuff out to send you hateful messages and harass you, that’s scarier to me.”

When someone truly does need to delete something from the internet for a reason that doesn’t squick me out, they are not usually a person who can come up with a minimum of $3,000. Those who can are lucky, and large institutions who can send us further and further into dystopian YA novel territory. Rich people, governments and corporations have been keeping their name out of the press in both legal (if off-putting) and nefarious ways since time immemorial. This is just the next iteration. But the gap widens as the ramifications become more indelible. For those who have, permanence is optional. For those who have not, better never be stupid in public ever again.

So should it be allowed, to do something like UC Davis is trying to do? There isn’t a clear answer to that, especially since the question of how it would be “allowed” or not is likely incredibly thorny in terms of legality and logistics. I suppose, as always, this is why journalists are so important. Now we know. And it’s back in the media again, a reminder. Remember that a university, an institution that’s supposed to protect and educate its students, to teach them how the world works, decided to do this by pepper spraying them directly in the face. And later, also instructively, by trying to pretend it didn’t happen.

But what of the individuals? Adhering to the very American notion that free speech is worth more than privacy wouldn’t be so bad if the consequences weren’t so real for the most vulnerable among us. I think the best we, as individuals also, can do is forgiveness. Forgiveness for honest mistakes that don’t cause lasting harm, forgiveness for momentary stupidity — not for a university that’s attempting to cover up its own culture of violence, nor for a chancellor who, by all accounts, is shady as fuck and repeatedly so, but forgiveness for the individual that could never afford the fresh start. That, and of course realizing that narratives are usually so much more complex than the internet would have them appear, that we are entering an age where most adults will have gone through their stupidest parts of life with access to the internet. Damien Leonhardt, in their interview with Buzzfeed, says we’re already on our way:

“Nowadays, people are a lot more understanding that, yes, there’s a person behind that photo, there’s a person behind that video,” they say. “It’s not just a funny picture that has no meaning when you share things. It has a meaning to the person who put it there. We’re connected; it’s not just a cold screen.

We can continue that work here, in our own digital space, in our own online community. Forgive, forgive, forgive the individuals who had a moment. Think critically and ask questions; disrupt hardening narratives by listening to people tell their own stories. Make the need to delete things from the internet obsolete. Those in glass houses should not throw Tweets.


Opportunities Corner

And now for something completely different. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about my concerns with the hegemony of the tech industry specifically as it relates to the burgeoning sphere of virtual reality. I’ve been banging the drum forever on getting more queer women and non-binary folks into tech — generally, the more representative the creators of a product are of the wide scope of end users, the better the product will be. I’ve decided whenever I get something that sounds like a really cool opportunity but doesn’t quite warrant a post of it’s own (or at least, not yet), I’m going to post it at the bottom of the Queer Your Tech for that week so you don’t miss out. These are specifically for queer women and non-binary folks who are looking for careers or to advance their careers in the tech-o-sphere. We’ve got two this week:

If you have a hot opportunity tip and you think techie-queers should hear about it, email me at ali [at] autostraddle.com

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. one of the last law and order svu cases that i watched was about a young girl who had been molested and video of it had made her “famous” online…i dont even remember more details, i think i blacked it out, anyway, child porn and revenge porn are two crimes that are a no brainer for me and yet i agree that more often than not the victims wont have $3000 to pay these companies.

    “I couldn’t possibly feel their actual feelings because that’s not how humans work”. Mirror Touch Synesthesia, if a person has this condition and sees someone touch my hand, they feel the sensation. i listened to the podcast by invisibilia called entangled if you’d like to hear more, i found it fascinating.

    • As someone with Mirror Touch Synesthesia, I would like to draw a HUGE distinction between feeling sensations and feeling another person’s feelings. The sensations I experience happen from neurons rippling in my *own* brain, and thus my experience is still very much my own. I am sure the mirrored sensation I am experiencing and the primary sensations are not identical sensory experiences.

      Also, sensation and emotion are not the same thing. I’m also very empathetic and can relate to people easily and put myself in their shoes, but this is not the same thing as feeling their feelings. I think it’s just patently false to say one person can fully “know” or “feel” another person’s experience. We can *relate*, as humans are naturally relational creatures, but it’s dangerous to say that we can feel and know another person’s personal lived experiences. Personal reality is too subjective.

    • This isn’t just SVU. There are multiple girls whose sexual abuse has been put online. One lgb youtube star was unable to get hers taken down because she found out about it after the statute of limitation on the rape crime (so couldn’t prove it was rape, and didn’t even know it happened because wasn’t conscious when the rape happened), and her ex-boyfriend had the copyright of the video because he shot it. And that girl whose rape was everywhere when she got fingered by several guys at a party.
      Yes, $3,000 isn’t available to everyone, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t help some people. I know the youtuber had a kickstarter to help with legal fees to win the copyright to the video to get it taken down. And now that some states are outlawing revenge porn, victims might be able to sue for emotional damage and internet erasure. But in general, the notion that it shouldn’t be available to anyone because it isn’t an option for everyone really disturbs me.

  2. Yup, both UC Davis and Sac State have been getting negative press lately, although UCD has a lot more to lose since it has a top medical school, provides agricultural science consulting to a majority of the farmers in California and has one of the best Vet medicine programs in the US. The current Chancellor is a huge problem.

    Of course, the stupidest thing about this is that there’s more mention of the pepper spray incidents in the current news cycle than there has been in years because she paid to have mentions of it removed! Corporations and institutions like UCD paying to have their info scrubbed is an entirely different ball game from private citizens in the sense that an individual removing damaging information will not generate a slew of new negative stories by doing so. Not to mention, the 1.5 million people of the Sacramento area are not gonna forget the police assault that quickly. It was immortalized in art and graffiti and that shit can’t get scrubbed away.

  3. The ethics of the internet are equal parts fascinating and terrifying. This is a very well thought out exploration of a very complex issue, Ali.

    It’s heartening to know that this incident may act as a canary to other corporations and universities that are headed down the coal mine of allocating resources unethically.

    • the first I heard of it was an article about someone who I felt really needed it. which is why I’m not 100% opposed to the service or surprised that it is also used by less-deserving parties.

      but I do hope we all become more aware of the bias of our internet searches and are at least more skeptical about results when we search things that matter.

  4. I got tear gazed by plain-clothes police officers (who then ran behind a wall of riot police) just last weekend for no f*cking reason at all (we were a good 500m from anyone causing trouble at a protest) and if I was lucky enough to have video of it I would feel 100x more fury at having it intentionally hidden away. And I’m already pretty damn furious.

    Glad to see that this has backfired for the moment, in that it has generated press about it, and will make a mental note to bring it up enthusiastically in conversation if ever that uni comes up in conversation.

  5. Fascinating and bizarre and troubling. Thanks for writing about this, Ali!

    I’ve got a somewhat related story about net neutrality and Internet monopolies that I’ve been dying to talk with other nerds about. See, I’m working as a social worker right now and lone of my clients recently moved to a new apartment. So new that the street and address aren’t on google maps. As it turns out EVERYONE (including all NYC agencies, in discovering) use google maps, so she can’t get mail, transportation, or any other services at her house. It’s got me feeling all kinds of ways about google’s corner on maps.

  6. I must point out that pepper spray is not actually better suited for military action, because the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits its use in warfare. Cops use weapons deemed too awful for military use against the people! This isn’t what we meant when we said to demilitarise the police! (Admittedly, I carry pepper spray, but for use only in emergencies.)

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