Google joined a growing movement last week with the announcement that it would remove revenge porn from Google Search results. The search engine giant follows Reddit, Twitter and Facebook in asserting that revenge porn is an egregious privacy violation, not an expression of free speech.
Google made its rationale explicit: “Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web. But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.”
Although a removal from Google Search results will not remove images themselves from the internet, the top search engine’s actions carry significant weight. Within days of the announcement, revenge porn—the conversation topic—found itself all over the internet.
Comedian John Oliver used his Sunday night segment of Last Week Tonight to dispel commonly held myths about revenge porn. The term itself is a misnomer, as it frequently has nothing to do with retribution: the term encapsulates hackers exploiting strangers’ photos for pleasure or profit as well as ex-lovers divulging private photos for payback. For this reason, ‘nonconsensual pornography’ is used as a more accurate term.
Additionally, United States federal laws do not exist to protect against revenge pornography, leaving victims with little in terms of self-defense. Oliver referenced the fact that victims who want to remove their images must first copyright the exploited photos—allow the federal government to closely scrutinize the very pornographic photos they are attempting to remove from circulation—as proof that the law is not on their side.
Protective federal legislation is much needed and the argument that it will lead to wholesale government censorship of the internet is simply unacceptable. Oliver quipped, “I’m well aware that asking law enforcement to police speech is a dicey proposition. No one wants them patrolling message boards looking for violent language.” Google described its own policy regarding revenge porn as ‘narrow and limited;’ future legislation should be viewed in the same light.
Mary Ann Franks, Legislative and Tech Policy Director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, further reinforced the importance of the Intimate Privacy Protection Act via the Huffington Post. Franks has worked closely with Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY) to draft the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which is expected to be introduced in Congress shortly. The bill draws from child pornography legislation and targets photos that are sexually explicit, taken in private and shared without written consent of the subject.
In Franks’ words, “Laws protecting privacy have a long and important history in this country. Privacy is essential to freedom of expression and speech, as well as being fundamental to a democratic society committed to equality and personal autonomy. This is as true for sexual privacy as it is for financial or medical privacy, and a federal bill recognizing this is long overdue.”
National momentum is growing in favor of victim privacy regarding nonconsensual pornography. Google’s onboarding has thrust revenge porn into the limelight, hopefully at the right time to build the support needed to move the Intimate Privacy Protection Act forward.