Frederick W. Gundlach as a Google

Today’s topic picks up on the topic of privacy and the internet, which I was discussing off-blog with a sometime commenter here who frequents Arudou Debito’s debito.org.

I mentioned as an update to one of my earlier posts about site traffic that my blog has become more popular in the Japanese expat community in recent times. In fact, enough so that I now rank in Alexa stats for Japan, most recently at #44,014. See?

(Click once, and then again, for best view.)

Now, how much traffic is that? Well, I think it’s about the same 70 Japan-side viewers as it’s been this season. But I think the mix of people who are happy (eager, I hope) to come back and check the site out on a regular basis is growing. So this would not be the every day hits, but people who will scan the list of the 15 [topics] I wrote about (to your right), and maybe hit a few.

Also, on the issues of the Japanese pension system, kokumin nenkin, kousei nenkin, ethics in the accounting profession, the ins-and-outs of U.S. expats filing U.S. taxes in America and the like, I get numerous search engine hits. Mary Travers as an inspiration for Janice the Muppet has also been popular.

My monthly unique hit readership is about 1,000 in Japan. That’s actually a lot of people if they are stopping here to read on an issue.

I know from the occasional nice note that I get in e-mail, that a number of people appreciate my work, and I thank you all for that who do. It is a bit of a labor of love, and plus, I have a work ethic that needs exercising in a feast-or-famine Japan career! Some friends tell me I should make the pension-and-tax advice into a business. I’m not sure how to transition a Frederick W. Gundlach as a Japan online practical-advice columnist and blogger project into something that is remunerative. This is one of the overall problems with the internet, though, isn’t it?

More so, some people visit for the very practical financial planning topics that I’ve discussed, but others visit for the social and maybe even the political commentary. So these are the customers, and they have different needs. And then, I sometimes like to write about something that really only interests me!

By the way: here let me mention that the tax topics and legal issues that I discuss are in no way meant to be taken as tax and/or legal advice. We do not have a provider and client relationship if you simply visit my site and read. So please keep that in mind.

Now back to the main topic, which was privacy and the internet.

At debito.org recently, there have been two posts that generated a bit of heat for discussing those who have “been a presence” on the internet. For example, spousal child-abduction victim Christopher Savoie. via his second wife, Amy Savoie, was in the Japan Times recently and Debito blogged about it. At some point in the thread, Christopher Savoie jumped into the comments because he didn’t like the direction of the commentary. At some point, he raised the question of slander and got the response by a commenter which is that immediate link above.

If Mr. Savoie puts himself out in traditional or regular media, is he a “public figure”?

If Mr. Savoie uses the internet to advocate for his children to be taken from the first Mrs. Savoie (Noriko Savoie) and repatriated to Tennessee per Tennessee state law, is he a public figure?

If people write about one story, or even the Savoie v. Savoie divorce case on the internet, is Christopher Savoie a public figure?

With the thing here, concerning the degree of slander and whether it is actionable?

Second example:

Debito Arudou has used the internet to advocate for expat civil rights and equal protection in Japan for several years now. Some attach the moniker “controversial” to this, but I would tend to disagree. He is simply standing up for what is supposedly the rule of law. So, he is just an Everyday Joe (or an Everyday Taro.)

However, his advocacy, be it on the internet or actually going around Japan giving talks in various fora, attracts the attention of people who then want to say something negative about him.

Let’s take a look at his Alexa stats for Japan:

Debito was recently ranked at just over #20,000 in Japan. When I did this post, here, he was #20569; and my estimate was that he was getting somewhere in the 300’s or 400’s for unique readers a day in Japan.

Now, does this make Debito a public figure?

I dunno. To me, I would say “no”. His modest advocacy has attracted a number of people who make themselves seem really strange, by setting up websites dedicated to personally knocking him. The latest of these is one called tepido.org, which I, as a matter of principle, don’t make a habit of linking to. Debito points out that a Mr. Mike Guest has been going at him as well, and made a special blog post just to return a zing–that Mike Guest seems to misrepresent his academic credentials.

Now, why is it important for the tepido guy or Mike Guest to make such an effort to say bad things about Arudou Debito? Who knows? Is Debito really a “public figure” as we traditionally understand it? I would say, no. No offense to Debito, but he may be premier among the daily Japan expat internet bloggers–that is for sure—but he’s not really in that category of public figure where making any comment about the person is a form of protected speech. (Yes, slander is still slander in common law. The question is whether you have a defense to slander. Call it libel if you will, but the net is as “spoken” as it is written, even though it’s all typed.) So the posters in that earlier thread were getting it wrong. The real question is whether you have a justification for the statements being made? Yes, truth is a defense, but it just may be moving you to the tort of publicizing someone’s private life (“intrusion upon seclusion“). You see, at root, the injury is still there.

I happen to think this is the Google and Facebook tort issue of the 2010’s. If you set up a means for someone to publicize or comment on some non-public figure’s private life, are you a party to the tort of intrusion upon seclusion? I don’t think the Congressional act that absolves ISPs from liability really went deeply into this isue.

This is why I think that people who set up a website, where a major purpose is simply to attack another private individual, are really just asking for it. But as I’ve said, “you can’t fix the internet.” So if someone decides to get on and say bad things about you—and I’ve had that happen, maybe once a year since 2003—there isn’t a lot you can do to stop it.

Now, today, I actually had someone Google my name. This is becoming more common, and I am not sure if it’s tied to the employment context. But it is something that is still very rare, but becoming more frequent.

As I, myself, have become the more frequent recipient of hit pieces, do I try to “fix” the internet? Do I observe the sites where the slander occurred, and wait? Do I try to find out who did it, prepare papers, and wait? What. What.

If I use the internet to talk to you, am I a “public figure”? If I use a pen name which is practically, but by no means entirely, anonymous, am I a “public figure”?

If I talk to you, using the internet, do I lose my expectations of privacy?

You see, at some point, it becomes not so much a question of who has made themselves a public figure, as where your free expression rights are made to end. And on this latter, we Americans generally associate it with totalitarians, freedom destroyers, and just-in-general bad people.

The internet is a tool for free expression. It connects people who have a common interest. It allows for the free exchange of ideas, just like newspapers and books. But it’s so vast and anonymous, and fleeting, that in many ways it’s like a telephone call. Even as text.

When someone Googles your name, what is the result? What do they see? Can you control it? Can you control it in the future? Is it fair information about you, or someone’s made up story? Do you have to stop using the internet if there is a possibility you will be Googled? Can you stand up for freedom, if you might be Googled? Can you be reported about in a newspaper, for any reason, if you might be Googled? Can you ask the help of a judge, if you might be Googled?

If someone Googles Frederick W. Gundlach, what does that mean?