Google to Remove Search Results for Unauthorized Postings of Sexually Explicit Images

Rhett Pardon

SAN FRANCISCO — Google today said that it will honor requests to remove search results for nude or sexually explicit images posted on the web without consent.

Google, making the announcement in a step primarily to combat "revenge porn," plans on creating a web form individuals can use to submit requests to remove search results. The web form will be available in coming weeks.

Google typically only removes search results with a court order. It makes exceptions for images of child sexual abuse and sensitive information such as bank account numbers and signatures.

In Europe, under the “right to be forgotten law,” Google has removed nearly 1 million links. The law gives European residents the ability to demand the removal of links that appear in searches for a person’s name — but only in Europe.

Lawrence Walters of the Walters Law Group told XBIZ that the removal of any content from search results tends to rub most anti-censorship advocates the wrong way.

“But we’ve routinely made exceptions along the way for things like child pornography or content that threatens national security,” Walters said. “‘Revenge porn’ is a difficult one, because there is no settled definition of the content, and the potential for abuse is great.

“We want to protect the humiliated victim who’s ex-partner casually posts their previously private, intimate moments for the world to see, out of vengeance or in an effort to extort," he said. "But do we also want to give this wholesale power of removal to individuals who once willingly participated in creating erotic imagery, and permit them to now change their mind, and claim the dissemination is without consent?

“Is consent a fluid concept, which can be revoked when one gets a new job, or adopts a new religion? Picture the former adult models who have been fairly compensated for their work, but no longer believe that further distribution of their content is consensual. What of those who believe they were not paid enough, or promised better gigs in the future? As is obvious, the issues of consent quickly become muddied waters.

"Bottom line, Google is a private company that has the power to create any rules or procedures it desires. The First Amendment is not impacted by its decisions, although the general concept of free expression may well be affected," Walters said.

"Time will tell whether Google will be able to ferret out legitimate removal requests from that that are fraudulent, or based solely on a change of heart. As more states wrestle with the legality of ‘revenge porn’ material, it is not surprising that Google is acknowledging the public pressure to provide legitimate victims an avenue of relief.

Google isn’t the first technology company to take a stand on “revenge porn.”

Twitter earlier this year enacted rules that ban the posting of nude photographs and videos without the subject's permission. Facebook and Reddit also instituted similar policies.

Numerous states in the U.S., as well as the U.K., have criminal statutes on the books for acts of “revenge porn.”

In a blog post today, Google Search exec Amit Singhal said the following:

We’ve heard many troubling stories of ‘revenge porn’: an ex-partner seeking to publicly humiliate a person by posting private images of them, or hackers stealing and distributing images from victims’ accounts. Some images even end up on ‘sextortion’ sites that force people to pay to have their images removed.

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.

In the coming weeks we’ll put up a web form people can use to submit these requests to us, and we’ll update this blog post with the link.

We know this won’t solve the problem of revenge porn — we aren’t able, of course, to remove these images from the websites themselves — but we hope that honoring people’s requests to remove such imagery from our search results can help.