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Google's takedown policy: Celebrity nudes today, your right to know tomorrow?

Evan Schuman | Oct. 8, 2014
Google patted itself on the back for being responsive to a request to take down nude photos of celebrities. But it should have stressed that all such requests are subject to intensive due diligence.

Credit: Nyshita Talluri, via Wikimedia Commons

Google last week did something that is really hard to find objectionable: It said it deleted quite a few ("tens of thousands") nude pictures stolen from celebrities. But as with anything that involves such an influential company as Google, this move creates a precedent, and it's a dangerous one.

This is classic slippery-slope territory. Before I detail the many reasons this decision could bring about terrible consequences, I should note that Google might have chosen to take this path for a deeply cynical and Machiavellian reason: It creates a much steeper barrier to entry for any startup that is even thinking about challenging Google's search empire. Google is in a dominant position that allows it to dedicate a large staff to the cost-containment task of deleting things, but startups need everyone committed to revenue-generating activities.

Now let's consider just how slippery that slope is -- that is, how much does Google's move endanger our privacy and right to know?

First we need to look at what brought about Google's decision. It all began on Oct. 1, when a Los Angeles attorney named Martin Singer sent Google executives a letter saying that he represented more than a dozen unspecified "female celebrities, actresses, models and athletes" whose nude or semi-nude photos had found their way from their iCloud accounts onto various public Google pages. He demanded that the images be removed, dropping lots of not-nice things about Google in the process, saying for example that it was "making millions and profiting from the victimization of women." (Irony note: If Singer successfully sues and makes a handsome fee, wouldn't he also be profiting from the same victimization?)

Singer earns his fee with some lawyerly twisting of the facts. He notes that other ISPs that he has written to removed the images "within an hour or two," even though "the vast majority of those sites and ISPs/hosts, all of which are much smaller than Google," have "far fewer staff and resources."

Those three quoted snippets are facts, but by joining them together, Singer tries to give them meaning in a way that leaves truth behind. The truth is that those smaller sites have dramatically fewer such requests to sift through. At a company the size of Google, getting many more requests every day, it's unlikely that anyone in a position to act has even seen those messages within an hour or two. Newsflash: Tiny companies can move a lot faster than a Fortune 50 company such as Google (annual revenue last year, $61 billion).

And while Singer would like Google to grant his request immediately, the rest of us are glad that companies take time to review and investigate such complaints. Companies need to perform due diligence before acquiescing to requests to delete things. After all, choose anything at all that's on the Internet and you can surely find someone somewhere who will object to it. Take it all down, and there's nothing left.


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