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UC Davis spent $175,000 but couldn't save its online reputation. That matters for all of us.

For victims of revenge porn, UC Davis's lesson is a hard-won truth about the internet.

UC Davis Occupy Protestors Call For General Strike During Regents Meeting
UC Davis Occupy protestors call for general strike during regents meeting.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How far would you go to erase your darkest, most unflattering moments from the internet?

The University of California Davis attempted to answer that question — and in the process revealed a grim truth about the nature of "forever" on the web.

The Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday that UC Davis recently went to great lengths to try to remove one appalling moment from the internet — a bit of infamy now known as the "UC Davis pepper-spray incident."

Said incident — in which university police casually and then more aggressively pepper-sprayed several peaceful and seated student protesters at close range — took place during a student protest held on campus in 2011 as part of the Occupy movement.

The moment was captured on video and in photos by many students who were present at the time, and led to a major internet backlash and even a viral meme based on the officer who was most prominently involved. That officer, John Pike, eventually received $38,000 from the state in workers' compensation and damages for his emotional distress after the event.

The Bee reports that following the subsequent backlash, UC Davis officials doled out a lot of money to at least two separate consulting companies that promised to help the university reclaim its good name and erase the damning evidence of the pepper spray incident from the internet.

What's interesting about this news is not just that UC Davis was so embarrassed that it was willing to pay exorbitant fees to distance itself from an unfortunate moment in its history. It's that the university's ultimate failure to do so carries serious implications for everyone on the internet — especially women.

UC Davis learned the hard way that money can't force Google to forget

UC Davis paid $90,000 to one consulting firm, Nevins & Associates, for a "proactive online brand and reputation enhancement campaign." The firm promised to create positive content, place positive news stories with strategic media outlets, and strategically filter negative search results. Among its more basic efforts were quick tasks like connecting the university's Google+ page to its YouTube account — a simple matter of tying both accounts to the same email address — in order to influence Google search results by strengthening Google's positive impression of the university.

When the university's six-month contract with Nevins & Associates expired, it shelled out another $85,000 — this time to a different consulting company, ID Media Partners — for similar services.

As Gawker has been quick to point out, the efforts of both consulting firms failed miserably. As of this morning, "pepper spray" was the second autofill search result I received when I typed "UC Davis" into Google.

Google search for UC Davis returns "pepper spray" as one of the top suggestions
Google search for UC Davis returns "pepper spray" as one of the top suggestions.
Google

In all fairness, while it may suck for UC Davis to be perpetually judged for the actions of one man at an event that took place five years ago, the failure of its efforts to eradicate an unflattering reputation from the web perfectly encapsulates a crucial point about the nature of the internet. More specifically, it speaks to the internet's ability to dismantle privilege and serve as an essentially egalitarian space where having power doesn't necessarily mean you can drown out the voices of the many.

The university's failed efforts to clean up its internet search results mirrors what victims of revenge porn go through

In a less anarchistic age of media, a rich mogul type like William Randolph Hearst could buy up newspapers in order to control their content and force the dissemination of positive information. But today, even though Rupert Murdoch can strictly control a media empire, the wilds of the internet will still dog his heels.

In UC Davis's case, no amount of money could dissuade public interest, and even a rash of positive news stories strategically placed with local and national outlets couldn't outnumber the sheer amount of coverage surrounding the pepper spray incident.

This news also demonstrates a far uglier point about permanency on the internet. UC Davis is a fairly powerful school, currently ranked No. 11 of all public universities in the US. If an entity of its size and stature, which has the ability to fling hundreds of thousands of dollars at a problem, can't erase negative search results from the web, how can any of the rest of us?

This is a real and significant question, particularly for victims of revenge porn — people who've had images of themselves distributed online without their consent, often in sexualized contexts even if the pictures themselves aren't sexual. Anonymous sites devoted to sharing revenge porn proliferate the web, and identifying the culprits and tracking the spread of the images is incredibly tricky; eradicating them is often impossible. Revenge porn victims often find their entire online presences upended due to the images appearing at or near the top of simple Google search results for their name.

Notably, many of the methods that UC Davis's consultants used to try to bury the university's pepper spray incident are the same methods that women are told to use when they're fighting back against revenge porn; creating positive content, "Google-bombing" positive search results, and strengthening one's online "brand" are all go-to strategies for cleaning up a negative internet past. But the UC Davis case illustrates how difficult it can be for the average human with limited resources to fight back against the internet's ability to proliferate and spread media far and wide.

After all, if the university was able to spend that much money without achieving any effective results, imagine the plight of a single woman with an average salary who's attempting to erase nonconsensual images of herself from the web with little to no assistance. Even with help and plenty of time and resources to devote to scouring the internet and creating new, positive content to distribute as an alternative, removing photos from the web is fiendishly difficult. The prospect of trying it oneself without any assistance is not only daunting but nearly impossible.

We have made some strides in this arena. Currently 27 states have laws prosecuting revenge porn uploaders or hosts, and Google announced last year that it plans to institute a "right to be forgotten" policy for revenge porn victims, allowing them to request the erasure of search results that point to images uploaded without their consent. But many states still face major opposition in passing significant revenge porn legislature — and as Google itself notes, removing the images from search results won't remove the images themselves.

While plenty of people may be glad the "right to be forgotten" doesn't apply to UC Davis in this instance, ultimately, the internet's tendency to permanently archive negative information may have a tremendous impact on the future. For UC Davis in the aftermath of the 2011 pepper-spray incident, the internet is an inconvenience. For many people in more abusive situations, it's a nightmare.