Google to remove revenge-porn images from search results

by Larry Magid

Google  announced that it will honor requests from revenge-porn victims to remove links to their images from search results. So-called revenge-porn is a term for nude or sexually explicit images that are posted without the consent of the person depicted, in some cases as retaliation for a relationship gone bad.

sad-468923_640Another term, “sextortion,” refers mostly to when people post such images or threaten to post them unless the victim consents to providing sex, financial payment or something else to the perpetrator. In February, a court in California convicted Kevin Bollaert on  six counts of extortion and 21 counts of identity theft for operating two websites. One of Bollaert’s sites posted nude and sexually explicit pictures of women, often taken by a former intimate partner, with names, age and other information about the victims. Another reportedly enabled victims to pay to have their pictures removed from the first site. Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison. As of June 1st, California was one of 21 states that have laws against revenge porn, according to the law firm, C.A. Goldberg, PLLC.

Most of the victims of revenge-porn and sextortion are women.

In a blog post, Google’s senior vice president for search, Amit Singhai said that the company is making an exception to its general policy to “reflect the whole web” in search results:

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.

Singhai acknowledged that Google’s action “won’t solve the problem of revenge porn,” but hopes that honoring requests to have the material removed can help.

Not the same as right to be forgotten

I’d like to make a distinction between Google’s voluntary decision to honor requests to remove revenge porn from its forced adherence to a European court decision requiring it to remove links to criminal records and other material that people named may consider to be private or irrelevant. The case, which was ultimately adjudicated by the Court of Justice of the European Union. stemmed from a 2010 complaint by a Spanish citizen who aruged that “Google’s search results infringed his privacy rights because the proceedings concerning him had been fully resolved for a number of years and hence the reference to these was entirely irrelevant,” according to a European Commission fact sheet. But the issue of revenge-porn is different for at least two reasons. For one, the request is coming from a victim — not a person justly or unjustly accused of a crime and second the content is clearly harmful, likely illegal and involves ongoing victimization.

As we’ve seen with child pornography images, victimization of someone who is depicted in a sexual situation against his or her consent (which is always the case with minors) continues as long as those images are being viewed. That’s one of the reasons that  possession of child abuse images are illegal.

And, while Google can’t remove these images from the net, it can remove the easiest way for people to find them. It’s not a solution, but it’s a good start.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives contributions from Google and other companies
This post first appeared on Forbes.com