Google to Remove Revenge Porn from Search Results

Google may become safer for victims of revenge porn.

Revenge porn is among the slimiest types of online harassment, and that’s saying a lot. The images—typically private, sexually explicit photos published by an ex—aren’t just briefly humiliating; they sometimes dominate the search results for a person’s name. Victims have engaged in fruitless legal maneuvers to get the images remove and have even tried to change their identities to escape the photos or videos.

Sites like Reddit and Twitter have tried to ban revenge porn on their platforms. Governments are trying to find ways to prosecute the men running these sites and the people posting the images. These are all good steps, but, as with all things online, the content can be shifted around, with new platforms popping up, often outside the U.S., making prosecution difficult. If the images can be found, the harassers achieve their purpose.

On Friday, Google took a big step toward stopping that. It announced that in the coming weeks, it will remove these images from search results when the person in the photo requests it:

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.

Google plays a critical role in providing the world with access to information. If a page does not appear in Google’s search results, it becomes very hard to find. Yes, there are other search engines, but Google is most popular, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the global search market. Its move here is not just effective because of their market share; it also throws down a gauntlet for other search engines, which must follow suit or make an argument that revenge porn deserves to be accessible.

Importantly, Google is recognizing the line between free speech and a right to protect one’s deeply personal information. This is not the same thing as Europe’s “right to be forgotten.” Google already removes pages with other sensitive personal data, like social security numbers and credit card numbers. Removing nude photos is very much in the spirit of the existing policy. At the same time, it is affirming that people deserve control over these intensely private images of themselves.

The biggest tech companies, like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, have a lot of control over what we can access online and how we see it. This is a new type of influence, and as a society we are still grappling with the implications. What if Facebook uses its ability to influence voters to swing an election? Or, in this case, what if a search engine refuses to give us the information we are searching for? It’s easy to think up dire implications that could follow this precedent, but that doesn’t mean that we are starting down a slippery slope.

Google has made a moral decision against revenge porn and put its substantial weight behind that. It shows how tech companies can help stamp out a scourge, and this move should be part of the ongoing conversation about an open Internet and the right to control our personal information.

Google effectively summed up the policy and its impact in its public statement: “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.” Let’s hope it does.