The Porn Identity

The New Republic

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FEBRUARY 6, 2006

The Porn Identity

 IN THE MIDDLE OF MY SOPHOMORE year of college, my mother called and said she wanted to visit me — just to have lunch. My university was a six-hour drive from my parents’ house, so I knew something was wrong. We ate at a fancy Italian restaurant; over risotto, we chatted awkwardly about classes. I dreaded the moment when our plates would be taken away. And, sure enough, after the table was cleared, my mother began to explain to me that certain lifestyles were dangerous. “What are you trying to say?” I asked. There was a silence, and then she said, “I know about the porn.”

THAT CONVERSATION CAME RUSHING back to me last week with the news that the Justice Department had subpoenaed records from Google in an attempt to demonstrate that innocent Internet searches can lead unwitting Web surfers to pornographic sites. Citing trade secrets and its users’ privacy, Google rebuffed the subpoena, to acclaim from civil libertarians. But Google’s history of fighting for privacy rights goes back much further than the Justice Department’s case. It goes at least as far back as 2002, when innocently Googling my name began leading unwitting Web surfers to pornographic sites. And that episode showed something civil libertarians might not like: Young people don’t necessarily feel violated by exposure on the Internet—even if our parents do.

FRUSTRATED BY MY PERSISTENT FAILURE to call home after I moved to college, my parents pioneered increasingly tech-savvy ways to find out what I was up to. This is how they became the first to discover that, when you Googled me, two or three x-rated links inexplicably appeared at the end of a few pages of legitimate results. The excerpts below these links nestled my name between outrageously obscene phrases involving animals. When I followed the links, they delivered me to sites that contained no images at all—just rambling, bawdy paragraphs done in a stream-of-consciousness, misspelled, arbitrarily capitalized style, like a dirty parody of Finnegans Wake. It was perverse, troubling, and deeply weird. But, for some reason, I didn’t feel concerned. I successfully convinced my mother I was not involved in any actual indecency, in part by looking up my name in an online telephone directory and discovering another Eve Fairbanks. That woman, I figured, had a naughty hobby.

THE PRIVACY CONCERNS RAISED BY the Justice Department’s case against Google are based on the perception that the Internet possesses a frighteningly accurate picture of who we are. Search engines, one digital rights lawyer argued last week, reach into “the most intimate details of your life: what you search for, what you read, what worries you, what you enjoy.” A Washington Post tech columnist noted that a Google feature remembered every Web search she had run on a given day, even the ones for things like “redhead” and “panties.” These searches, taken together, provided a broad portrait of her most capricious desires and secret curiosities, one she wouldn’t want government officials—or anyone else— to see. It stands to reason, then, that it should be even more upsetting to discover that the secrets Google reveals about you aren’t even your own.

BUT I’D FORGOTTEN ABOUT THE spurious porn at the end of my Google profile until, a few months later, I received another phone call from home: The “Eve Fairbanks” porn sites were proliferating! And it was true. When I Googled myself, instead of the meager ten or 20 hits I generated in the past, my name now begot nasty links by the thousands. The “Google” logo at the foot of the page that dramatizes how many results your search has produced had stretched like taffy: The mere mention of my name now made the search engine croon sweetly, “Goooooooooogle.”

MY PARENTS WERE EXTREMELY WORRIED. We consulted family friends, who feared that my racy Google persona would alienate employers and potential suitors. We talked about hiring a lawyer. Desperate to convince my parents I was not actually involved in Internet porn, I suggested that we should be happy for the woman who shared my name, because, evidently, her career was taking off! “It’s not her,” my mother said. “How do you know?” I asked. “Because I called her,” she said. “She’s an eighty-year-old woman.”

I UNDERSTOOD MY PARENTS’ NERVOUSNESS. And yet, instead of anger or fear, my expanded Google profile gave me a twinge of satisfaction. The Google me had become fun, provocative, and enigmatic. I felt like Mae West. On the electronic frontier, my reputation preceded me. And, like many a cowboy famed for villainies he never committed, I was kind of proud of it. My friends were jealous, and not one advised me to try to get the sites removed.

MY GENERATION IS THE FIRST TO HAVE grown up with the Internet, and we see the online universe a little like Gyges saw the world when he was wearing his magic ring: as a place where anything goes, where there is neither consequence nor shame, and where concerns about protecting your reputation are less, not more, important. Teens blog details, true or made up, about their personal lives that their elders would have blushed to put in their diaries. Parents and teachers—some of whom, the Post reported last week, are shutting down their students’ blogs—chalk this up to naïveté, suggesting that, when these children grow up, they will be as concerned about privacy as past generations were. But maybe not: We are so used to the Internet’s conventions that we trust our instincts to separate online truth from fiction. And we know that every kind of claim is out there, so, when it comes to ones associated with ourselves, we just care less—and will, perhaps, demand less protection from companies like Google.

A YEAR OR SO AFTER THE ITALIAN dinner, I received an e-mail from home. “I’ve been talking to Google,” my mother wrote, “and they got your name off all those sites.” Sure enough, thanks to persistent attention from Google’s user support, the links —byproducts of tricks to drive more traffic to porn sites—were gone. They’ve been replaced by pages of school accolades and a collector’s site featuring the Beanie Babies “Eve” and “Fairbanks.” I’ve been downgraded to a fetishist of stuffed animals: Perhaps I ought to worry about my reputation after all.

 

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