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The Ethicist
April 19, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Is It Fair to Google College Applicants?

I interview high-school seniors who apply to my alma mater. I routinely Google these students, and I discovered that one posted information on his blog that reflects poorly on him. May I ask him about the blog? May I mention it to the university? Should it affect the score I give him?
KEITH LUBLIN, West Bloomfield, Michigan

PUT DOWN THE MOUSE AND STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. You should not Google these students in the first place, let alone make your discoveries a factor in college acceptance.

You wouldn't read someone's diary without consent, and you should regard a blog similarly. Reading it is legal: The student posted it voluntarily, and in that sense it is public information. But many people unwisely regard their blogs as at least semiprivate, and you shouldn't take advantage of this.

Phillip Burns of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says, "Many of us in the field have put great time and energy into educating our students on the potential risks involved with online communities and want them to realize how—once posted—that information is out there for pretty much anyone to see and use."

[U.N.L.V. does not seek out online information in evaluating applicants. A spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers says the organization considers it unethical to Google college applicants.] As an interviewer, it would be unfair for you to subject the students you interview to this additional scrutiny.

As to whether this blog would affect your view of the student, how can it not? You can't un-read it. It's bound to influence you, and that's part of the problem.

UPDATE: Lublin checked with the university and was told not to ask the student about the blog but to include its URL with his report.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 19, 2010)