If I called you – or your wife or girlfriend if you're a man – a skank, you wouldn't like it one bit. Skank is a street term for a low-class woman who dresses in sexually-revealing clothes.
And imagine how you'd feel if the skank reference circulated day after day, tens of thousands of times, for all the world to read on the Internet?
That's exactly what happened to a former Vogue magazine model named Liskula Cohen after an anonymous Web blogger leveled this insult. The slur took wing beyond the blogger's usual readership because others republished it, forwarded it, and commented upon it. So much Internet traffic resulted that even a routine search-engine check of Liskula Cohen's name brought up hundreds of references to Liskula Cohen: skank.
She had become the latest recipient of what's called a Google bomb. That's a Web posting – positive or negative – so provocative that it moves the subject to the top of every search on Google and other Internet search engines.
Naturally, Cohen was outraged. She sued Google, demanding to know the blogger's identity. A judge agreed, and Google gave her the name. Soon not just the model, but also the Internet world, knew that the Google-bomb-throwing blogger was a Cohen acquaintance named Rosemary Port.
Now Port herself is suing Google for $15 million for invading her privacy by releasing her name.
These unpleasantries have sparked vigorous online debate about individuals' rights and protections on a medium where people can easily launch personal attacks under the cloak of anonymity or fake names, sometimes ruining reputations, businesses and careers.
One victim, Sue Scheff, writes in her new book, Google Bomb, that if you don't own your own name on the Web by relentlessly creating your own positive bombs, someone else will by hurling negative ones.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.