No sex please; it's the internet

03.03.2015 16:15

Google recently reversed their decision
that ‘adult’ material should be removed
from the Blogger network. Regardless of
the outcome, this shows how corporations
have an alarming authority to change and
control what’s online
More blogposts Topics Censorship
Sex Pornography Google
Web filtering Internet
Google has recently reversed a plan to
take down adult content from a blog network.
But they have the authority and power to
change their mind at any point. Photograph:
Girl on the Net
Tuesday 3 March 2015 02.15 EST
Last week sex bloggers, porn performers,
and their “readers” took part in a strange
virtual hokey cokey. Google declared that it
was updating its terms and conditions, and
that any sex bloggers should pull their
adult content out of its Blogger network.
Later in the week, after very vocal
criticism, Google declared that, in fact,
naked pictures could stay in. Now that the
decision has been reversed, many of those
who are hosted on Blogger are breathing a
sigh of relief. But with someone as big and
omnipotent as Google hosting the internet
party, its important to ask on what basis
something gets declared “in” or “out”.
I don’t expect the average Guardian reader
to worry about whether that blurry
snapshot of their genitals has had more
views than the one they published last
week. What I do think you’ll care about,
though, is the power that corporations
have over us – power that we’d never
dream of giving away to a government.
While governments might (to a certain
extent) have to prove that they’re doing
something for a good reason, corporations
aren’t held to the same standards of
evidence. If a given decision is within the
law, the company only has to care if it’s
good for business – which often translates
as “good for their brand” – and no amount
of bleating from those of us it affects will
make the slightest bit of difference.
You are technically free to publish naked
pictures of yourself on the internet –
hooray! But before you get your phone out,
let’s have a little look at what you’ll have
to do if you want to make sure that your
pictures don’t get deleted.
If you want to share your genitals with the
world (and why wouldn’t you? I’m sure
they’re magnificent), then you need a host.
This could be something like Google
Blogger or Wordpress. But while both of
these platforms technically allow adult
content for now, there’s no guarantee that
they’ll allow it tomorrow. Like all
privately-owned companies, neither
Google nor Wordpress are obliged to
continue hosting your images if they
decide they don’t want to.
So you self-host: you buy a domain, set up
a web server (beware prudish web
companies here – some of them will cut
your blog off if there’s even a vague pubic
whiff about them), you build a website,
and you put your picture online. Ta-da!
You’ve made it. Except not quite. Because
at any point your host could change their
Ts and Cs, and decide that they no longer
want to be associated with your explicit –
albeit spectacular – genital display.
What’s more, if you want to start making
money from your website, you’ll run
headfirst into another set of bizarre and
complex restrictions. Google’s AdSense
restricts advertising to “family-safe”
websites . Amazon affiliates – one of the
quickest and easiest ways to make money
from a blog – can’t be used on sites which:
promote or contain sexually explicit
so that is a bit of a problem, and one I’ve
personally grappled with for some time. As
a sex blogger (warning: that link is not safe
for work), my content isn’t deemed
appropriate for the programme, even
though Amazon is happy to sell my book,
which contains a similar brand of pervy
filth. Given the discrepancy, I can only
conclude that Amazon itself wouldn’t
qualify to join its affiliates programme.
What about direct payment? Well, there’s
Paypal, except Paypal’s always been
reasonably puritanical when it comes to
adult content - even threatening to pull
support for Patreon unless they drastically
restricted use of the platform by anyone
offering ‘adult’ services. There’s CCBill,
which is one of the most commonly used
payment processors in the adult industry,
and which takes a whopping 40% cut of
transactions, and even this comes with a
bizarre list of rules and restrictions. The
fact is that with most services like this,
while you can cross your fingers and hope
for the best, you have to accept that at any
point a company could decide that you
need to either edit or delete your content.
Not all of these decisions will be based on
evidence of harm or illegality, but on a
subjective interpretation of a fluid set of
The science bit
I could go on, but I suspect by this point
you’re wondering what any of this has to
do with science. When it initially
announced that it would pull adult
content, Google specified that:
we may make exceptions based on artistic,
educational, documentary, or scientific
Although it’s a relief that the fear of naked
bums doesn’t extend to buttocks with
footnotes, the way in which we censor
adult content is itself deeply unscientific.
It has to be, because there is no objective
distinction between what counts as
“artistic” and what’s “pornographic”.
The fact that most censorship isn’t based
on evidence is something Dean’s covered
here before – pulling apart the key
arguments that were wheeled out when
certain types of porn were banned in the
UK. I think most people are happy to
accept that when it comes to deciding
what’s hot and what’s horrible, barring a
measure of direct harm, there’s often little
scientific basis for decisions which place a
particular image into one camp or another.
These distinctions are tricky enough when
it comes to decisions in which we have a
say – namely those made by the
government. Although not all policy is
evidence-based (please stop bitterly
laughing at the back), by their rampant
misuse of statistics, we can see that
politicians are trying to do the right thing.
At the very least they accept that there
should be a snifter of proof that this shiny
new policy will make society better: here’s
the 52-page report to prove it. While policy
and lawmaking is not always evidence-
based, it aspires to be – our government
accepts it will be held accountable on the
basis of the real-world effects of its
Corporations, on the other hand, have a
very different measure of success. They’re
looking at bottom line: often money, but
with a platform like Blogger they’ll
initially be looking at their user-base and
the use of that particular platform. Google
wants your data. So if Google believes that
hosting your genitals will damage its
brand and prevent more users from giving
up data, that’s all that matters. Google
doesn’t care about whether adult content is
beneficial or harmful - only about whether
potential users perceive it to be.
That fact remains, even if Google’s playing
ball for now, that’s a big problem. Because
although we can aspire to evidence-based
decision making in government,
corporations increasingly hold the power
when it comes to our right to free
expression. They own the platforms that
we write on, and that we use to
communicate and share content. Google
has every right to dictate what happens on
its channels, of course – there’s no law
stating that it should host anything people
throw at it. But while we’ll quite rightly
call a government to account when it does
something questionable, and ask for the
evidence that a given measure will prove
beneficial, we don’t hold companies to the
same standards.
If it’s one picture of one person’s genitals
then the end result isn’t that harmful: no
one ever died because they ran out of porn.
But censorship of adult content often
covers far more than just your cheeky
genital snaps – it covers art, opinion,
expression, in fact anything which could
be deemed “explicit”, no matter what its
cultural value. It’s great that Google has
gone back on its decision around adult
content, but while Google owns channels of
communication that influence every part of
our lives, I want more than just a cheery
“thanks for your feedback” - I want to know
that future decisions like this won’t be
taken lightly. I want to know that the next
time Google declares our lives would be
better if they were ‘family friendly’, we’ll
be given a really good reason why. Not
based on perception or assumption, but on