There are hundreds – possibly thousands – of videos that allege to show women being raped, sometimes violently, on Google’s website, both in the standard search section and in the site’s “Video” section. In October 2015, I catalogued, in detail, 37 of those videos to test whether Google’s reporting system would remove these inappropriate videos from the site once flagged and after repeated notifications outside of Google’s standard reporting system.
This sample of videos, which appear over 75 times on numerous websites available through Google’s search engine, have been viewed a combined 19.67 million times since being posted. Each of the 37 videos was flagged in October 2015 for violating Google’s terms and conditions using Google’s reporting system, and Google was directly notified (via e-mail) of their existence outside of its standard reporting system. Multiple articles were also published about the problem, and numerous news outlets carried the story. Despite having significant public notice, only two of the 37 videos have been removed since they were flagged, as of January 2017, a removal rate of about 5 percent, and it remains unclear whether the videos that were removed were taken off the site because they were flagged or because the pornographic websites themselves removed them.
Search engines are some of the most powerful, influential, and lucrative businesses in the world, but with such incredible power comes a degree of responsibility to, when possible, protect the rights of others. Search engines, which earn a profit from the increased traffic to their sites from users who want to view disturbing videos of people being sexually abused, have a moral obligation to ban pornographic websites that participate in this abhorrent behavior. Whether Google and other search engines have a legal obligation to remove the videos remains an open question.
In June 2015, I discovered hundreds of pornographic videos appearing online that allege to show women being raped. These videos, which are available in numerous major search engines – including Google, the world’s largest search engine[i] – appear to be homemade and include descriptions claiming to show actual rape, as opposed to displaying pornographic actors.
Disturbingly, the videos are not only available via textual links provided on search engines, they are also available on Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Bing search engine, among others, in each search engine’s “Video” section.[ii] In most cases, those video links include “preview” images showing the alleged rape victim. In some cases, videos are available to be played directly through the search engine, so users do not need to go to the URLs provided in a search to see portions of the rape video.[iii]
Sounding the Alarm
Between June 2015 and October 2015, I reached out to Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to alert them to the problem and request a comment. I also asked each search engine what, if anything, was being done to address this problem. Of the three search engines, only Microsoft responded to my request. I spoke with a representative for Bing at length, explained the problem, and provided additional information, as requested by the representative. Those conversations were off the record, but I can report I was told by the representative he would request further information from someone “higher up in the company.” About a week later, I was told Microsoft had no comment to offer.
In October 2015, confirmed again in 2016, I compiled a database of 37 videos that appeared to be showing women being raped, often while intoxicated. Many of the videos could be found on multiple user-submitted pornography websites, some of which are based in the United States.[iv] The videos were found on Google by using the search terms “passed out girl abused.” All the videos include descriptions, some longer than others, that claim the videos show rape.[v] There are no qualifiers in any of the videos themselves or in the video descriptions that suggest the videos use actors, and most of the videos appear to be captured using phones or low-quality handheld video cameras.
Search engines profit from having increased traffic to their websites, as do the pornographic websites that host these illegal videos. By choosing not to ban the videos, search engines and pornographic websites hosting these rape videos are electing to put profits before the rights of people.
On October 27, 2015, I published an article on FoxNews.com outlining the problem for the first time.[vi] Following the publication of the FoxNews.com story, I published a series of other articles on the pornography problem. Those stories ran in major print and digital media outlets, including Townhall.com, Western Journalism, The Blaze, Human Events, Providence Journal, and the Deseret News. Some of the stories were also featured by other websites,[vii] and on October 28, 2015, I appeared on The Hard Line television show on Newsmax TV, where I was interviewed by host Ed Berliner about the problem and what needs to be done to fix it.[viii]
No Policy Changes
Despite multiple attempts to alert Google, Yahoo, and Bing and the notable media attention received, there have been no policy changes made by the three large engines to stop the pornographic videos from being displayed on their websites – or, at least none that I have been able to find. None of three search engines have, to my knowledge, made an official comment about the existence of the videos or any efforts to stop them.
Google, Yahoo, and Bing, as well as virtually all search engines, include terms of service that already forbid this kind of illegal material. All three search engines, as they have done with child pornography, have the ability to remove the links from their search results and ban URLs that consistently display illegal material.
The Legality of Rape Videos
Every state has laws against rape, and there have been numerous people who have been convicted of filming rape. Whether it’s illegal to distribute rape videos is not quite as clear. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), “Federal law prohibits the possession with intent to sell or distribute obscenity, to send, ship, or receive obscenity, to import obscenity, and to transport obscenity across state boarders for purposes of distribution.”[ix]
What qualifies as “obscene material” has been defined in important Supreme Court cases, such as Miller v. California (1973). From those cases, a test has been formulated to determine whether material is legally categorized as “obscene.” DOJ outlines this test on its website, writing, “Any material that satisfies this three-pronged test may be found obscene.” The following are the “three prongs”:
“1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion);
“2. Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or sado-masochistic sexual abuse); and
“3. Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Videos showing women being raped should qualify under this definition of “obscenity,” but courts could differ on this question.
Mary Anne Franks, Ph.D., legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, told me in an e-mail interview scholars don’t agree on exactly what constitutes “obscenity,” but she says obscenity laws could apply in this case. Franks, however, cautions that because obscenity laws have been used in the past to unjustly ban material, “we would be better off with sharper legal concepts that are less vulnerable to overreach and misuse.”[x]
“Updating our voyeurism laws for the 21st century would be a good start, as would be recognizing crimes such as the nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit material,” said Franks.[xi]
Michael Whisonant, an attorney at the Jaffe, Hanle, Whisonant & Knight law firm in Birmingham, Alabama, says search engines should consider revising their policies to ensure they don’t find themselves in violation of state or federal law.[xii]
Google provides a method for users to flag material they believe violates Google’s terms and conditions. Because Google’s terms and conditions prohibit certain forms of illegal and obscene material, including child pornography, I flagged in October 2015 all 37 videos in my database, which I believe to show criminal rape, not simulated pornographic rape. Combined, these videos appear in Google’s “Video” section more than 75 times and have been viewed a combined 19.67 million times by users.[xiii] Many of these videos show “preview” images of the victim, often naked, in Google’s search results.
Throughout 2016 and again in January 2017, I rechecked the video links in my database to see if Google had taken any action against the videos. As of January 2, 35 of the 37 videos flagged remain active in Google’s search results, including in Google’s “Video” section, where they appear. It’s unclear why two of the 37 videos were removed. Assuming the two videos were removed because they were flagged, a proposition I believe to be unlikely, Google’s success rate for removing flagged pornographic videos showing women being raped is only about 5 percent. That means about 95 percent of all rape videos flagged are never removed more than a year after being flagged and after numerous articles published in the media about this problem, assuming my experience is a good indicator of what has occurred with other flagged material.
What Should Be Done?
In 2015, Google announced a new policy allowing users who are victims of “revenge porn” to have links to images and videos posted online without their permission to be removed after a formal request is made.[xiv] While this policy change is a step in the right direction, it still falls far short of the policies that should be in place.
Google, Yahoo, and Bing should create a zero-tolerance policy that permanently bans all pornographic websites from their search engine that repeatedly display videos that claim to show people being raped or sexually abused in any way. Law-enforcement officials should also be notified when videos showing people being raped are flagged and removed by Google, an internal process that may already be in place at Google and other search engines. Victims of crimes should not be required to formally request to have illegal material removed from search engines’ results in order for the material to be removed. When it appears illegal videos of people being raped are being displayed, search engines should proactively ban the material and issue warnings to the websites involved. Multiple violations should always result in a website’s permanent removal.
Risks Associated with Inaction
By choosing not to act, search engines are placing themselves in a dangerous situation. A reasonable case could be made search engines, especially those that allow users to see images and/or videos of people being raped, are displaying and distributing “obscene” material in violation of federal law. Additionally, search engines that fail to take a proactive approach against these videos risk having further government regulation and intervention in the future. If businesses do not self-regulate, history shows government regulatory bodies will eventually step in and use this as a justification for expanding their power over the internet.
Search engines are some of the most powerful, influential, and lucrative businesses in the world, but with such incredible power comes a degree of responsibility to protect the rights of others. Search engines, which profit off the increased traffic to their sites from users who want to view disturbing videos of people being sexually abused, have a moral obligation to ban websites that profit from this inhumane practice.
PHOTO: Dark Computer. ThinkStock Photo by Scyther5.
[i] Konrad Krawczyk, “Google Is Easily the Most Popular Search Engine, but Have You Heard Who’s in Second?” Digital Trends, July 3, 2014, http://www.digitaltrends.com/web/google-baidu-are-the-worlds-most-popular-search-engines/.
[ii] In most cases, “safe search” must be turned off.
[iii] Google does not appear to have a feature that allows users to watch explicit sexual videos on Google’s website. The Yahoo and Bing search engines do allow users to watch these videos directly on their websites.
[iv] Many pornography websites are based in foreign nations, where laws dealing with sexual ethics, especially as it relates to the abuse of women, are relatively lax.
[v] In some cases, only a title exists, but even in those cases, the title explains the video shows rape.
[vi] Justin Haskins, “‘Abuse of Passed Out Girl’: How Internet Search Engines Choose to Ignore Sexual Assault,” FoxNews.com, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/10/27/abuse-passed-out-girl-how-internet-search-engines-choose-to-ignore-sexual-assault.html.
[vii] See Cathy Burke, “Heartland’s Haskins: Google, Yahoo and Bing ‘Profiting’ Off Of Violent Content,” Newsmax, October 28, 2015, http://www.newsmax.com/Newsmax-Tv/justin-haskins-search-engines-profit-violent-images/2015/10/28/id/699502/.
[ix] “Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Obscenity,” U.S. Department of Justice, Accessed January 2, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/criminal-ceos/citizens-guide-us-federal-law-obscenity.
[x] This paragraph also appears in the following article: Justin Haskins, “Google Shows Women Being Raped, May Break Federal Law,” Human Events, November 17, 2015, http://humanevents.com/2015/11/17/google-shows-women-being-raped-may-break-federal-law/.
[xiii] Number accurate as of October 2015.
[xiv] “Remove ‘Revenge Porn’ from Google,” Google, Accessed January 2, 2017, https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/6302812?hl=en.