Google’s Acting in Loco Parentis

This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

Google just launched Google Instant, a somewhat nifty feature. You’ve probably noticed recently that when you start to enter a search query, Google would give you suggestions so you wouldn’t need to keep typing. They’ve taken it a step further. Now, as you type, the search results from the first item in the list of suggestions appears. Keep typing and new results show up. If you want to search for “George Washington,” you’ll see search results for “Gmail”, then “Geico”, then “Georgia”, then “George Steinbrenner”, and then the ones you want.

I’m sure that this will be useful to a lot of people, especially as the suggestion algorithms improve, although I also suspect that it’ll contribute even further to people being lazy about looking for information. Sort of a search engine version of “Honey? Can you walk across the house and hand me the remote?”

But it’s sort of ironic (and more than a little patronizing) that Google Instant won’t work for sexual content, given that sex is one of the most common search terms. You can still Google sexuality content, but you won’t get the instant view of search results.

The suggestions and Google Instant only work if you’re signed into Google and they depend on your search history. So if they already know that you’re an adult who has chosen to have Safe Search turned off and that you’ve looked for sexual content, why do they need to restrict what you can see?

I have no problem with Google working to keep sex off people’s screens if they don’t want to see it. But keeping Google Instant G-rated for everyone takes away our ability to choose for ourselves what content we want. It also reinforces sex-negativity and sexual shame, in much the same way that silence, secrecy and whispering about sexual topics can. When you can search for cereal, shoes, and football without a problem, but looking for sex tips gets you a blank screen, the underlying message that many people will end up with is that sex is scary and we need to wall it off. And that is exactly the root of erotophobia.

I don’t need Google to try to act in loco parentis. And I don’t need them to restrict what I see on the internet or in my searches.

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