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Google Takes Steps to Remove ‘Revenge Porn’ from Search Results as Rep. Jackie Speier Tackles Problem

( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2015 06:41 PM EDT
Internet search giant Google has announced that it will honor requests to scrub sexually explicit content commonly known as “revenge porn” from its search results that were posted online without consent. In addition, a House member from California is about to propose legislation to tackle the problem at the federal level.
(Reuters)

Internet search giant Google has announced that it will honor requests to scrub sexually explicit content commonly known as "revenge porn" from its search results that were posted online without consent. In addition, a House member from California is about to propose legislation to tackle the problem at the federal level.

According to Jessica Guynn of USA Today, Google announced that it will remove the controversial search results like it already does for sensitive personal information such as bank account numbers and Social Security numbers. The company made the announcement on a blog post on Friday.

"Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web," Amit Singhal, senior vice president of Google Search, wrote. "But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims-predominantly women."

Singhal added that Google will put up a "web form" where people can submit the requests. He stated that the company will adhere to "a narrow and limited policy" when it comes to tackling revenge porn.

"We've heard many troubling stories of 'revenge porn': an ex-partner seeking to publicly humiliate a person by posting private images of them, or hackers stealing and distributing images from victims' accounts," Singhal wrote. "Some images even end up on 'sextortion' sites that force people to pay to have their images removed."

However, Singhal acknowledged that there were limitations on what Google can do in shutting down revenge porn altogether.

"We aren't able, of course, to remove these images from the websites themselves," Singhal wrote. "But we hope that honoring people's requests to remove such imagery from our search results can help."

To fill in the gap, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) plans to introduce legislation tackling the problem of "revenge porn" in the coming weeks to Congress. She elaborated to Adam Clark Estes of Gizmodo back in February on why this issue was important to her.

"Today it's possible to ruin someone's life with the click of a button, by publishing another person's private images without their consent," Speier said. "Our laws haven't yet caught up with this crime."

Estes looked at the consequences of Speier's bill, which if passed would make revenge porn a federal crime.

"It's designed to create new criminal statutes that not only apply to the people who run revenge porn sites but also criminal liability to the individuals who upload and share the content, which is where things get controversial," Estes wrote. "Even sites that host links to the content, like Facebook and Google, could face criminal penalties for enabling distribution if they've been notified of the links and don't take down the links in a timely manner."

According to Estes, Speier looked at existing legislation banning child pornography in drafting her bill.

"The bill specifies that the photos posted online must be sexually explicit, not taken in public, and distributed without written consent in order to violate the revenge porn law," Estes wrote.

Estes added that a provision in the law has been made to allow sites "unwittingly hosting content" to have "a reasonable amount of time to take down the photos or links to the photos after being notified by the authorities." He noted that penalties would vary, depending on circumstances.

"Basically, websites will be notified when links to revenge porn are found on their sites, and if they don't take them down in a timely manner, they'll face a penalty," Estes wrote. "The legislation is designed to create tiers of involvement in the crime in order to provide safe harbor for sites that are unaware of the offending content-think Facebook-while also maintaining some legal recourse for sites that simply refuse to take down links-think 4chan."

Speier indicated to Estes that her legislation was designed to help the most helpless victims.

"If you're Jennifer Lawrence, you can pay a high-priced lawyer to demand that websites take your picture down, but for an average person, the current system offers almost no recourse," Speier said.


According to an email sent by her office on Friday, Speier elaborated on the reasons behind her proposed legislation, citing federal law already on the books.

"We already punish the unauthorized disclosure of private information like medical records and financial identifiers," Speier said. "Why would personal images of one's naked body, given in confidence, be any different?"

However, Danny Sullivan, founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com, told USA Today that Google's decision could lead to a "slippery slope," given that the company "has long been hesitant to mess with its search results."

"If you pull out one kind of content, other people will want you to pull out another kind of content and it can become a slippery slope," Sullivan said. "Having said that, this is one of those cases where I think people would nod in agreement that yes, this is terrible, this stuff should be removed."

Sullivan added that the company's decision to take down revenge porn may even serve as a deterrent effect.

"If it's not in Google, does it actually exist? The answer is yes, it does exist but it's a heck of a lot harder to find," Sullivan said. "Even this won't make it impossible but it does make it more difficult and, when it's more difficult, it makes it less attractive for people to do this kind of behavior."


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