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Rick Santorum wants his Google problem fixed. Can Google shrug him off?

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This tussle between the aspiring nominee and the Internet behemoth sheds a spotlight, say media and political analysts, on such unresolved digital-era issues as who has the right to control an online reputation and what responsibility comes with Google’s massive profile.

Both sides in this dustup have more than a soupçon of disingenuousness, says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

“If you want to be president, people are going to say all kinds of things about you, nasty, untrue, mean and downright awful sometimes,” she says, “that just comes with the territory.”

More important, she says, Rick Santorum is not trailing in the polls because of some unsavory online materials. “He could get all of this removed and he would still be way behind the other candidates,” she adds.

But the ability to smear a public figure on such a broad platform troubles Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and now professor of law at the University of Iowa.

“This is yet another example of the growing lack of civility in our civil discourse that ranges from the offensive to the mean-spirited and even dangerous,” he says.

Not everyone can handle the kind of nastiness that the anonymity of the Internet permits, he says, pointing for instance to a teen suicide caused by Internet bullying. But free speech is protected by the First Amendment, he notes, “and this falls into that category.”

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