A Crash Course in the Streisand Effect

Chrome in Chrome

Picture yourself standing in your kitchen. You shake the last bit of broomed-up crumbs from your dust pan into the trash. It’s taken awhile to clean up for the party, but you made it just in time. Your guests should be arriving soon to enjoy a pleasant evening in your spotless home.

As you wipe the sweat from your brow, you hear a faint skittering sound near your feet. You look down to see a cockroach crawling across the linoleum. In anger, you stamp your foot down on the unsuspecting insect and hear a satisfying crunch.

As you raise your foot to make sure the roach is dead, however, five more crawl out from beneath it. How can this be? You hastily march about the kitchen in a desperate attempt to squash each of the offensive critters. Each time you do, though, five more appear, then ten, then one hundred! Your kitchen is now covered in a disgusting swarm.

Then you hear the knock at the door. A panicked thought races through your mind. “They’re here, and my kitchen is covered in cockroaches!”

You wake up in a pool of sweat. You rub your eyes and breath heavily, trying to banish the reputation nightmare from your mind.

Information is a finicky thing. If you leave it alone, the world at large may never know it exists. The single cockroach may find its way under the fridge and never manage to offend a single guest.

Squelch that information, however, and you give it power. You give it the status of an underdog or a martyr. Others rally to its cause and spread the word. Now what might have done little or no harm to your company is a public controversy. Instead of one cockroach, you have a swarm.

The history of this phenomenon is pervasive and well-documented, affecting businesses, celebrities, religious organizations, and even royalty. Not familiar with it? Well, for the sake of your business’ online reputation, now’s the time to educate yourself about the Streisand Effect.

Barbara Streisand v. Kenneth Adelman

Back in 2003, this phenomenon gained its official label thanks to Barbara Streisand, who sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for distributing aerial photos of her beachfront home. The resulting backlash caused the photo in question to receive widespread attention and distribution.

Daniela Cicarelli v. YouTube

As it turns out, “sex on the beach” isn’t just an alcoholic beverage. In September of 2006, paparazzi footage of Brazilian model Daniela Cicarelli enjoying some quality time with her boyfriend made it onto YouTube. When a lawsuit was filed demanding it be removed, users posted copies all over the place. The Brazilian legal system even went so far as to block YouTube for its ineffectiveness in preventing the spread, which caused Brazilian fans to boycott Cicarelli’s show.

MPAA v. Digg

In April of 2007, an HD DVD encryption key was posted to Digg. The Motion Picture Association of America sent legal notices demanding that it be removed, and the site administrators at Digg complied. When the removal became public knowledge, however, Digg’s users revolted, posting and digging hundreds of duplicates to the front page. The code also made it onto numerous other websites, onto T-shirts, and was even immortalized in song.

King of Thailand v. YouTube

The Streisand Effect even applies to royalty. When a insulting video of Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej appeared on YouTube in April 2007, the Thai government responded by blocking the site. Not only did the act elicit widespread notoriety for the original video, but it spawned numerous other insulting videos, many more offensive than the first.

Scientology v. the Internet

The Church of Scientology has several well-documented bouts with the Streisand Effect, even predating when the term was coined. In 1995, they attempted to remove the Usenet group alt.religion.scientology for posting private documents. In January 2008, they demanded that a video of Tom Cruise be removed from YouTube (which complied), and subsequently from Gawker.com (which refused). In April 2008, they demanded that WikiLeaks.org remove private documents from their site. All of these actions, of course, resulted in widespread distribution of the materials in question.

Tiny Details v. Me

As a side note, I myself have been involved in an instance of the Streisand Effect. In July of 2006, I posted a critique of a business named Tiny Details on my old personal website. In February of 2007, Kristopher Buchan, the owner of the business, emailed me with threats of legal action unless the post was removed. Within two days, news of his threats had circulated on the Consumerist and several other blogs. We managed to reach a peaceful settlement afterward, but not before permanent damage had been done to Tiny Details’ online reputation.

The truth is obvious: Online censorship has a way of backfiring. Often, the bigger you are, and the more blatant the censorship, the larger the resulting backlash.

This goes hand-in-hand with not attacking your critics. There may be sensitive or damaging information about your company or your website skittering around in cyberspace. And there are, of course, ways of dealing with it. But legal bullying is not one of them. Take care when handling your cockroaches, lest you suffer the wrath of the Streisand Effect.

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