Google, a name most associated with the popular, gargantuan search engine, has been making its way into the headlines for a different and much more egregious reason: censorship across its platform of products. The company recently made waves for prohibiting adult material on its advertising network, AdWords. Now, it seems, Google has expanded its censorial policies and many are wondering just where the company will stop.
Xbiz.com founder and editor, Alec Helmy, called out the search giant for its hypocritical behavior; echoing the concerns of many in the adult industry. In an open letter, Helmy wrote, “Your decision has left countless businesses in dismay, bewildered about why an ultra-progressive company that is so committed to ‘Freedom of Express’ would make such a decision. These same companies also remain concerned about what the future may hold – specifically, whether you will also decide to place adult oriented websites at a decided disadvantage in organic search results.”
Through a spokesperson, Google claims its restrictive policies on adult advertisements are not new. However, many familiar with Google and the adult industry do not agree. Theo Sapoutzis, chairman and CEO of AVN Media Network, said he was surprised by the move: “I was one of the very first advertisers for AdWords back in 2002. It’s something that’s been [untouched] for 12 years, so you don’t expect change is going to start happening.”
Tom Hymes, senior editor at AVN, agrees, noting that many in the adult industry have been abiding by Google’s rules for years and are now being abandoned by the search giant: “There are many people who say the biggest losers are the ones who play by the rules. The winners are the huge properties with a lot of free content and frequent updates – the type of actions the Google algorithms really like.” BaDoink CEO, Todd Gilder, added to the chorus with a scathing open letter to Google, noting: “When an organization as visionary, powerful and dominant as Google starts kowtowing to shrewd, faith-based special interest groups with federal lobbyists like Patrick A. Trueman at the helm, it’s a sad day for freedom and a sad day for IT.”
Now, Google is taking its censorship on advertisements a step further and directing business users to cover up “sexually explicit content” in the form of album covers. The search giant has instructed music website Drowned in Sound (DiS) to pixelate, thereby censoring explicit cover art. Sean Adams, founder of DiS said that “it seems crazy that they feel they can police our editorial.” He also wondered just far Google would go with its censorship policies in the future. Just recently, Google surprised many users when it removed several thousand links in an effort to comply with the EU’s “right to be forgotten” law.
Adams is certainly not alone in questioning the lengths and depths of the company’s censorship. Many people, both in and out of the adult industry, are uncomfortable with Google’s recent decisions and wonder what will come next. Attorney Michael Fattorosi stated, “This is another example of a mainstream company turning its back on the industry that has supported it. The question now becomes: Will they block adult content from their search results?”
Google has also previously attempted to keep adult content out of other major products: developers are not permitted to share Google Glass apps with sexually explicit content and sexually explicit materials are banned from Chromecast.
Many are speculating that pressure from conservative groups caused Google’s policy changes regarding adult content. Morality in Media, an ultra-conservative media activist group, claimed through a press release that Google’s policy changes came after a “productive meeting” between the two. Google has refused to confirm the connection. If accurate, this kowtowing to a family values group is a first for the search engine giant, which previously prided itself on commitment to free expression principles.
David Holmes, writing for Pando Daily, explains the greater problem of Google’s censorship and its impact beyond the adult industry. Holmes writes:
You may despise pornography, but the specter of “family values” has often been used to attack anything that threatens traditional Christian morality, from homosexuality to books about wizards. I doubt Google will ban Out Magazine or Harry Pottery anytime soon, but what about links to, say, a provocative work of art like Piss Christ? Or ads for birth control?
As Holmes notes, the importance of tracking Google’s policy changes is not only for their impact on industries currently hurt by the new rules, but also their potential to censor information Google doesn’t agree with in the future. Holmes colleague, Mark Ames, makes an important point: “Never in history has one corporation and one source had so much power over what we know and don’t know.”
Google’s power to filter the information received by the public is vast, and its ability censor disfavored speech, dangerous. Most importantly, this is everyone’s issue, not the select few whom Google has decided to target today.
Larry Walters has been on the forefront of defending the adult entertainment industry for over 20 years, and has defended numerous high profile obscenity cases for adult site webmasters. He operates Walters Law Group (www.FirstAmendment.com) which focuses on Internet law, First Amendment issues and intellectual property.