Google The “Moral Compass” Of The US Justice System?

What’s Obscene? Google Could Have an Answer from the New York Times documents a case that is underway in the US legal system where Google Trends was brought in to determine the morality of what is sexually explicit content.

The case is about a Florida-based porn web site that the state wants to prove is obscene. But the defense attorney argues his client’s web site is “obscene” because Google searches show that communities in Florida do indeed look for this material — making it “normal” rather than exceptional.

For example, Google Trends will be used to show more people search for “orgy” than “apple pie” in the area. The defense will argue the web site’s sexual content does not exceed that of “more mainstream topics” and therefore the content is “not outside the norm.”

The defense attorney, Lawrence Walters, has also subpoenaed Google for more data that would support his client in his case. I will not get into the complexities of subpoenaing data from Google in this write up. For more on that see here, here, here, or here. Google is considering the request.

What blows me away about this case is, if the defense gets their way, Google may become the “moral compass” of what the US justice system may rely on. I use the word “moral compass” because it was brought up in the You&A With Matt Cutts at SMX Advanced, with the whole debate on false information getting into Google because of linkbaiting. We thought it was amazing that Google can act as the “moral compass” in this case, but to be pushed up to the US legal system and be brought into evidence as to what social norm is – well, that takes Google to a whole new level.

Times are changing; what was obscene just ten years ago is not as obscene as it might have been then. In fact, the NY Times documents that during the current Bush administration only 15 obscenity cases (not involving child pornography) were brought up in front of the Justice Department. Compare that to the 75 obscenity cases that were brought to the Justice Department in the Regan administration.

Who determines what is obscene and moral? The defense attorney argues that the community does, and what better way to determine what the community sees as moral than to see what they are searching for from within the comfort of their own homes.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Google: Legal | Search & Society: General | Stats: Search Behavior


About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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