THE NSFW ISSUE
The week of October 5, 2014
google_and_porn_final

Does Google hate porn?

By Gillian Branstetter

This probably goes without saying, but online porn is kind of a big deal. The most popular pornography websites rank up more unique visitors than Netflix, Twitter, and Amazon combined. They make up over 4 percent of the entire Internet. On Google, an estimated 25 percent of all search queries are porn-related.

Porn has often enough been the quiet profit of Silicon Valley giants like Google. But in the past few months, Google seems to be slowly phasing out the porn industry from its omnipotent grip on the Internet. Back in February, the folks at Mountain View banned any porn apps for its Chromecast TV dongle (mirroring its swift decision to preemptively ban their use on Google Glass). And just this July, it took this battle a huge step forward by banning ads for porn from its AdWords network, the largest advertising network on the Internet.

As is Google’s right. Court after court has told Google it is responsible for what appears on its Web pages and, therefore, the company has every right to give as little or as much room for pornography as it pleases. People who want porn know how to find it; no one who wants porn is forced to go without it. So Google is entirely right in its attempt to mainstream its products by scrubbing them clean.

While Google’s moves might seem very progressive (or conservative depending on your standpoint), Google is notoriously behind the rest of Silicon Valley on this issue. In fact, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter all instituted such policies against pornographic content well before Google’s recent changes. Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying that “people who want porn can buy an Android phone.”

Google is not the only one fleeing the porn industry; it’s merely the most powerful.

It’s largely pointless for Google to even be slightly associated with pornography in any official capacity. While changes to Google’s foeless search engine are noticeably less dramatic, Glass, Chromecast, the Play store, and the AdWords network have active rivals—most of whom have cleaned their act up. Google is not the only one fleeing this otherwise profitable market; it’s merely the most powerful.

The question as to whether Google has become too powerful has been asked since at least 2007, when BusinessWeek plastered it on its cover. It’s an argument the porn industry is currently making in light of Google’s new restrictions, but one that may fall flat simply because, well, it’s the porn industry.

Professional pornographers work very hard to appear as above-board and clean as they can. Fairly or not, however, porn has a long and storied reputation of being seedy, corrupt, misogynistic, and even dangerous. Considering 75 percent of American children have access to a smartphone or tablet, it is within any company’s interest to cater more to worried parents and less to the pornography industry.

It’s also not just consumers that Google must answer to if it were to continue to support pornogaphers. Google has become the main target of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in his bid to make even the availability of online porn an “opt-in” venture, forcing British citizens to sign up for access to obscene images.

Likewise, consumer groups are growing increasingly adept at demanding an audience from major tech companies. When Google announced the changes to its Play store and AdWords, family values group Morals In Media took credit for the move due to a meeting it had with Google last May. (As a sign of the group’s strict attitude to pornography, Google remains on its “Dirty Dozen” list of the top porn peddlers in the country, behind Facebook, Verizon, Tumblr, and decidedly more lo-fi “distributors” like the American Library Association and Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Porn will always be in the back room of society and our search results.

Porn will always be in the back room of society and—since society exists there anyway—our search results. While pornography in most forms is a perfectly legal and moral trade, Google is not responsible for either supporting the industry or making it easier for you to find it.

While Google’s search engine has functionally become a public record, it is not the only avenue for consumers to find pornography, and it shouldn’t be considered functional censorship to disallow apps or ads for porn. The Play Store in all its forms and the AdWords network are Google’s.

Of course, censorship, whether real or, like Google’s rules, merely perceived, is often seen by the Internet as an injury that must be healed; users will inevitably move faster than websites can react to workaround the blocks. Famed porn star James Deen has already found a way around Google’s Glass ban and surely similar loops will be jumped for aspirational smut-for-Chromecast developers. In fact, porn has famously been at the head of numerous technological innovations, from the VCR to the adoption of Blu-Ray over DVDs.

And that’s fine. Porn has a role online as much as it does in the entertainment industry. But Google is under no moral imperative to support the industry when it has no compelling reason—financial, moral, or otherwise—to do so. It costs them trust amongst a larger user base and nets them only pageviews—something of which they have plenty.

So let Google blacklist as much porn as it wants. The rest of us will just have to stick with Bing.

 

Illustration by Max Fleishman