Can Google arbitrate obscenity?

Back in the halcyon days of library school we idealistic librarians-to-be hemmed and hawed about a little thing we call Intellectual Freedom. The basic question being, what limits are, or should, be in place regarding access to information. For most of us these limits should be almost non-existent. And, of course, in this Internet Age of ours, the practical limitations on access to various types of information have begun to approach zero. 1 One of those limits that we all felt generally comfortable with keeping was that of obscenity. Surely, we are safe to limit access to words, pictures or images that served naught but prurient, debased interests.

Not so fast. How do we define obscenity? Maybe I’m offended by lewd pictures of Mickey Mouse but those New York Hipsters are hanging silkscreen graphics of Disney Sutra 2 in their 200 sq. ft. lofts. Hmm. So the Supreme Court gives us the parameters of what may be judged obscene:

The standard for judging obscenity, adequate to withstand the charge of constitutional infirmity, is whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest. 3

Done, and Done. I’m safe from toon porn in my little valley hamlet and those debauched New Yorkers can risk their mortal souls in peace. OK, again, not exactly. “Contemporary community standards” can be interpreted vaguely enough to be useless. More cynically, it can be interpreted by who happens to run the community, be they the good ‘ol boys, wealthy church widows, or whomever. 4 Enter teh Google. Or, more appropriately, this intriguing approach to using search data to define community standards in a Florida case.

The New York Times article describes an attempt to harvest Google search data to show that the community standards are much broader than the community would like to admit. Lawrence Waters, defense lawyer in the case, suggests that online behavior in the home is a valid way to define community standards. Or, as the article puts it “the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like ‘orgy’ than for ‘apple pie’ or ‘watermelon.’”

This is a fascinating case and it will be interesting to see if the defense argument holds water in court. This seems like another democratization brought about by the Internet. Or possibly, another step towards Big Brother. Either way, it’s a novel approach to solving the riddle of obscenity – an approach that does not rely on 12 jurors’ (or any other arbitrary panel’s) conception of what the morals of their town may be. It’s also a good example of just how tricky Intellectual Freedom can be. No answers today kids, just questions. Whose community? Whose standards. What do you think?

1 It’s important to note that access to information and access to reliable information are two different things. Hence my chosen profession.
2 To my knowledge no such work exists, per se, but I wouldn’t advise those easily offended to search teh google for such images
3 ROTH v. UNITED STATES, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)
4 Although it’s not an issue of obscenity, our local library board deemed that community standards require us to deny anyone under seventeen access to MySpace or Facebook. Anecdotally, 4/5 of the teenagers who come to the library used to use our computers for just such activity and our usage has gone way down since that decision. Whose community, and whose standards?

2 Responses to “Can Google arbitrate obscenity?”

  1. Katie Says:

    ahem. don’t ask me how i know this…but disney porn definitely exists…

  2. Perm Says:

    Regrettably, it’s true, standards have fallen in adult entertainment. Now that we’re competing with the amateurs, we can’t afford to invest that little extra in story, production value, feeling. People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone. New technology permits us to do very exciting things in interactive erotic software. The wave of the future, Dude, 100% electronic.

Leave a Comment