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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.

This is where I find Google's response frustrating. The search giant said that its turnaround for these requests, in fact, "is generally hours, not weeks. Of course people continue to post these images on the web, so -- like other online services -- we rely on people notifying us to help us take them down, whether by flagging content, or filing DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) requests. We're removing these photos for community guidelines and policy violations (eg nudity and privacy violation) on YouTube, Blogger and Google+. For search we have historically taken a different approach as we reflect what's online -- but we remove these images when we receive valid copyright (DMCA) notices."

Do you feel the slope sliding away beneath your feet? Google's statement says nothing about investigations. Instead, it touts its quick response to a complaint it received. It creates the impression that letters of complaint -- not meaningful probes -- cause images to vanish.

Oh, and I do expect requests to come rolling in. Some of them will be pretty easy calls. Nude photos whose subjects object? That's easy; take them down. Child porn? Of course it will be rooted out. OK, but what about extreme violence? That sounds like an easy call. But if the image is from a police dashboard cam, does the depicted violence also carry implications about civil liberties and police brutality? Can a case be made for removing videos of beheadings by ISIS that still allows for other forms of political violence, like the shooting of President Kennedy?

The important question in all of this is: Do we want lawyers at Google answering these questions for us?

I don't. And it's not just images. Copyright-protected and trademark-protected documents could easily be candidates for suppression. There are the disclosures found in WikiLeaks documents, and there are all the news reports that quote from those documents. Trade secrets might seem like a sure bet for suppression, but what happens when there's a clear public interest at risk? Remember when GM took engineering shortcuts that resulted in deaths?

Hate speech seems like something that shouldn't cause trouble. But who gets to determine what constitutes hate speech? Where do you draw the line between hate speech and the articulation of a political philosophy? And if you start censoring political speech, then you are encroaching on the very ground that the First Amendment was meant to protect.

Let all of these things slip by, and soon you're well down that slippery slope. Now you have to consider whether embarrassing social-media posts should be deleted by Google, just because a good lawyer will argue that such details could impact future earnings. The same goes for DWI arrest details and registered sex offender lists. After that it will be negative product reviews and pejorative comments from employees on


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