Two recent but very different court cases are raising important questions about the limits of privacy in online activities and what our search and viewing activity does and doesn’t say about who we are.
First the New York Times reported on Lawrence Walters a Florida lawyer who is defending the owner of a porn website charged with creation and distribution of obscene material. Walters wants to use information from Google Trends to argue that the material on his client’s website does not offend “community standards” (a concept which is part of the obscenity test in a trial). Google Trends is a free service that shows users the relative popularity of search terms against each other. Walter’s argument is that the relative popularity of terms like “orgy” over terms like “apple pie” indicate that orgies or group sex would not likely offend community standards (at least no more than apple pie would).
In a separate case reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, a federal judge has ordered Google to turn over huge amounts of data from their video website YouTube to Viacom. Viacom is suing Google for $1 billion for copyright infringement and while they aren’t interested in individual user data they say the information is necessary for them to prove their case. The information being released could include not only which videos were viewed and how often, but the user names and IP addresses of those watching and uploading the videos.
The coverage of both of these cases has focused on either the legal or privacy implications for individuals and companies. Important questions to be sure, particularly for anyone concerned with sexual rights, as they’re often the first to go and the last to be defended. But these stories also raise interesting questions about the nature of our relationship to our searches and viewing habits. Does what we search for and what we watch represent us? Does it represent something of our sexuality?
Specifically when it comes to sexuality I find it odd that a distinction is rarely made between the intentions of our search and what we actually type into the search box. The words we use in search may not always or accurately reflect what we want to search for. This is a particular problem when we don’t have the relevant language or vocabulary, something true of many Americans when it comes to sexuality. In my 21 years of talking to people about their sexuality and sex lives it’s my experience that many of us lack basic sexual literacy. We may use terms that some people (say lawyers or judges) would consider crude or indicative of sexual values that in fact only reflect our limited vocabulary. Considering this do our search terms represent us or the kind of education we’ve had?
These cases also direct our attention to the conundrum we’re in now that this search data exists. On the one hand I’m happy that we can look at Google Trends and see the diversity of sexual searches. Whether this reflects diversity in sexual interests is hard to know, but when it comes to sexuality it’s always nice to be reminded that individual diversity is greater than diversity between populations, and seeing this data can go a long way to normalizing difference. On the other hand it’s clear that if we can be directly linked to our searches and at some point those searches are deemed socially unacceptable, we can be marginalized and criminalized based on that information. In this way, whether we like it or not, we are what we search.
Read more – New York Times: What’s Obscene? Google Could Have an Answer
Read more – Washington Post: YouTube Ordered To Release User Data