NPR has a story on how material on the Internet can come back to haunt individuals for many years long after it was published.
Back in library school ('98-01), I often met older librarians-in-training who were cantankerously skeptical of the Internet. Among their strongest critiques was that nothing on the Internet is permanent. With just a few keystrokes, it can disappear.
Oh, how wrong they were! Once there's something about you or by you on the Internet, it'll be there forever. The NPR story includes many personal narratives of individuals whose careers have been stopped or destroyed because of reputation-damaging information online. Example:
Take the case of Andrew Feldmar, a Canadian psychotherapist in his late sixties living in Vancouver. In 2006, on his way to pick up a friend from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he tried to cross the U.S./Canadian border as he had done over a hundred times before. This time, however, a border guard queried an Internet search engine for Feldmar. Out popped an article Feldmar had written for an interdisciplinary journal in 2001, in which he mentioned he had taken LSD in the 1960s. Feldmar was held for four hours, fingerprinted, and after signing a statement that he had taken drugs almost four decades ago, was barred from further entry into the United States.
Andrew Feldmar, an accomplished professional with no criminal record, knows he violated the law when he took LSD in the 1960s, but he maintains he has not taken drugs since 1974, more than thirty years before the border guard stopped him. For Feldmar, it was a time in his life that was long past, an offense that he thought had long been forgotten by society as irrelevant to the person he had become. But because of digital technology, society's ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.
More common examples include people posting compromising Facebook photos and losing jobs (or not getting hired) as consequences. You might delete a photo from your profile or a post from your blog, but in some form, it will usually be archived somewhere on the Internet.
I started blogging while I was on my way into ministry, so I developed an early, healthy paranoia and assumed that people would read me and deliberately try to misrepresent my writings [in retrospect, this should have been a warning sign]. I also decided to blog under a pseudonym, which helped shield me from parishioners digging for dirt.
Most of my colleagues in the Methoblogosphere did not. And every now and then, I get requests by participants in the Methodist Blogger Profile series, asking me to delete sections or entire posts because the bloggers endured flack for what they've written.
Now I have fewer people in my life who are out to get me, but I still take certain precautions. To protect myself from any future problems, I follow two rules:
1. When in doubt, don't post it. If there's even a question in your mind about the prudence of posting something, don't do it. Err in favor of caution.
2. Assume that everything that you write is read by everyone in your life. Don't think for a moment that your name is Google-proof or that your pseudonym will never be discovered.
To which I am considering adding a third:
3. Assume that everything that you write will eventually be read by your children. I don't want my little girl, when she grows up and starts surfing the Internet, to have doubts about her father's moral character or sanity, even if I'm not worried about what people think now. What you write isn't just read by the people in your life at present, but by everyone that you will ever meet for the rest of your life and afterwards.
The Internet has a permanent memory. Act accordingly.