Evangelist is a word that’s bandied around all too often in the business world. But when you meet a person that really is on a mission, that tired old phrase seems to waken up a little. Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, industry commentator and Forbes contributor, more or less invented the sector of online reputation management six years ago and now protects the digital good character of about 1.6 million customers. A few years ago, he was just another big-talking startup founder with a great idea – and more than $60 million in venture capital. Now, after Edward Snowden opened the eyes of the world to the extent of government and private sector surveillance, he wants more. On his desk in Redmond City, Calif., Fertik keeps a quote from the Talmud which reads: “You are not required to finish your work, but nor are you permitted to desist from it.” This time around protecting the public from the internet is not just Fertik’s job, it’s his crusade.
“I have been tilting against really big windmills for five or six years,” he tells me over expensive martinis at an upscale London hotel. “The cool kids from the tech or legal eagle law school background thought everything I stood for was against free speech; that I was a command and control censorship dick. I had to be a turn the other cheek guy, which is difficult because I’m an Old Testament guy, too.
“Now the cool kids think we’re the internet freedom fighters, that we’re the guys who are gonna give you control of the machine which would otherwise dominate your life.”
We’re meeting because he’s extending his business into Europe. Reputation.com has recently opened an office in Liverpool and hired the former CEO of a car sales website called We Buy Any Car to run it. Fertik’s happy to have founded an office in the north of England, which is still sneered at by Londoners, because he seems to relish flying in the face of established convention. And yes, he’s delighted with the performance of his spin-off company in Germany, a notoriously privacy-conscious nation which once made up 20 percent of his company’s growth. But what he really wants to talk about is his life mission, which has shifted into a new gear. He wants to save us from the Internet, which is run by companies that “collect your data without your knowledge or permission and sell it to an unidentified person for purposes you can never know”, a phrase he repeats like a mantra throughout our conversation.
“I am reluctant to call Silicon Valley malevolent,” he says. “It’s accidentally malevolent. I see myself at the vanguard of a benevolent Internet. There has always been this myth that the Internet is democratic, which it is when it comes to consumption of data, but not when it comes to the use of your data. Here’s the problem: if you run an Internet advertising business based on selling your customers’ data, then you cannot care deeply about someone’s privacy, even if you want to. Accidentally, on purpose, Silicon Valley has reversed into this inadvertent panopticon.”
Since Harvard-educated Fertik quit his job as a legal clerk to launch Reputation.com (formerly known as Reputation Defender), he has faced a number of criticisms as well as successes. Basically, his firm issues take down notices to websites hosting content or, for a larger fee, can massage Google rankings to shift good stuff up and move bad links back down the rankings. Some critics claimed Fertik’s business had a chilling effect on free speech. Others said his more expensive services allowed rich people to prune their online profiles in manner that is simply unavailable to anyone who can’t stump up $10,000 to promote flattering links to the top of a Google search. He’s scathing about all these naysayers.
“Why does Google get to decide who you are based on an opaque algorithm that is known to only five or six people on the planet?” he asks. “We began with the proposition that Google is no God, the truth or the first amendment. It’s just a machine.”
In the past six years, Fertik has watched the public and big business change its perspective on privacy, particularly after the exposure of the PRISM surveillance scheme. From a position where he was on something of a lone mission, the reputation wrangler has won more allies in recent years than ever before. When I ask who these are, he replies: “That’s a Jedi question. It’s a Yoda question. I’m going to invoke the almighty word Davos. I’ve been going for three years and I’ve seen the world move since then.”
At the meetings of the World Economic Forum, where Fertik sits on the Global Agenda Council on Internet Security, he has held conversations with the sort of institutions that hold even more information than Google or Facebook, such as banks, ISPs, healthcare companies and insurance firms. “By the third year I went to Davos, these people had realized there was a trillion dollars to be made from our proposition, which is that you should have some control over your data. Our allies are the people who have the data but who aren’t allowed to use it. They are everywhere.”
Now the world is waking up to privacy in a big way, with brand names such as famous anti-virus firm AVG predicting this emerging sector would make up a huge part of its future business. Siobhan MacDermott, chief policy officer at the AVG, once told me she had been in talks with five major banks,, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan, about the possibilities on offer in the world of privacy. It’s clear to see how delighted Fertik is by this turnaround.
“I am hoping PRISM is to the privacy industry was the Michelangelo virus was for the antivirus industry in 1992. You can interpret that as a commercial statement, because this stuff gives us life and I’m in business to be in business. But you can interpret it as a statement of mission. Like a lot of Silicon Valley guys, I’m very mission driven.”
I guess a lot of tech people say that sort of thing. But there’s something about Fertik that makes his claims to change the internet convincing, as it’s being done not just for principle, but for profit too. As we shake hands and he disappears off down a London, he shouts back at me: “Remember. You and me, we’re part of the rebel army.” I kind of believe him, which is what all evangelists make people do, isn’t it?