On March 19th 2012, the Tokyo district court issued an injunction ordering Google to suspend its autocomplete function after hearing the case of a man whose name generated suggestions of criminal acts which he did not commit. He claims that the search results caused him to be suddenly dismissed from his previous job and have prevented him from getting new employment.
Similar cases have been brought in France and also in the US. Google maintains that they have not violated any laws. I have been well aware of this issue since 2009 when I discovered that the top autocomplete suggestions for my own name were “arrested” and “Oxycontin”
Today, thankfully, “arrested” is no longer an option, but “Oxycontin” still is. In 2009, I discovered there was another Jonathan Stillo, 10 years younger than me, blonde, living in Jersey who also shared my love of grappling. The internet felt too small for two of us. I had just won four dissertation research grants, was living in Romania researching TB and for the first time in my life, making a footprint on the internet with my scholarly activities. At the same time, the other Jonathan Stillo was in New Jersey getting arrested along with his father and older brother for allegedly running a 1000 pill a week Oxycontin ring.
My namesake eventually completed a diversionary program and had his record cleared. His father and brother are still awaiting trial. For people with common names like Joe Smith, being found on the internet is difficult, they melt into the woodwork. But in a case like this where there are only two of us it is more complicated. Jonathan W. Stillo was captain of the wrestling team at Centenary College, but mixed in with his achievements are a couple of my own (much less impressive) high school wrestling results and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition wins.
Just when I thought that a recent summer in Romania which generated internet stories from the US Embassy, major Romanian newspapers and other media had finally pushed the other Jonathan’s alleged prescription drug ring involvement out of my top search results he went and upped the ante by allegedly crossing into opposing traffic and driving headfirst into an oncoming car in January 2012. I can’t speak to his motive but if it was not alcohol or drug related maybe it could be Fight Club style enlightenment seeking.
I am starting to realize that as long as Google’s algorithms favor arrests and car crashes over academic results there is no way my name will get top billing. The good news is that the other Jonathan even after sustaining head injuries, seems to have recovered from the crash.
I spent most of my life with the assumption that I was the only Jonathan Stillo. I grew up in a pre-internet era and the only people I knew who shared my last name were my immediate family. With the growth of search engines like Google, the digitizing of old newspapers and the fact that virtually everything one does makes some sort of mark on the internet these days, my own world has grown quite a bit. I feel a bit like one of these newly discovered tiny chameleons.
They were happily living in Madagascar in on tree branches 4” inches from the ground and managed to go completely unnoticed.
While searching Google results for this post I also discovered that Samuel Stillo an assistant mayor in Illinois pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2006 and Patrick Stillo an asphalt foreman in Illinois was arrested for corruption in 2004. And then there is John F. Stillo who according to the who according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office was released from prison in 2009 for “Gross Sexual Imposition” and is a “Child Victim Predator.” I don’t know what all that means, (and also question the logic behind these online sex offender registries) but I am happy that I go by Jonathan. So far as I can tell, these Stillos are (thankfully) not related to me. However, I can’t help feeling a hint of pride that someone with my family name (more commonly held by masons, construction workers and security guards) was actually able to become an assistant mayor in the first place.
As I am writing this I’m chuckling to myself wondering if Jonathan W. Stillo is ever annoyed at me for cluttering up his internet search results with all of my tuberculosis advocacy the way his wrestling results, car crash and arrest distract from mine?
In my own effort to win greater control of my identity on the internet, I recently purchased the domain names www.jonathanstillo.com and www.jonathanstillo.org, though I have little idea how to actually turn the “parked” websites into actual pages with content, it does my heart good to know that I have at least staked a claim and put up a virtual fence around it.
Following Jonathan W. Stillo’s life on the internet, I can’t help but feel for him. His family has hit a rough patch and after that car accident he is lucky to be alive. He seems like an all right guy, but at the same time I wonder if one of my students or a prospective employer might get us confused. Sure with within a few minutes one can easily tell that our ages and locations don’t match up, but will the searcher put in enough effort to discover this? Like much of the potential risk and benefits of new web-based technologies, all of this is unknowable at this point but we ought to seriously consider the implications that negative information (even if incorrect or about someone with the same name) on the internet can have on one’s future prospects, be they aspiring young professors or their alleged drug-dealer and child victim predator namesakes.