First things first: Google is to be applauded for fighting a subpoena requiring it to turn over data on people’s searches to the federal government. The government isn’t seeking the data for a criminal investigation; it’s on a fishing expedition to build a case for getting an anti-porn law through the courts. As John Paczkowski writes, the subpoena puts us on a “very slippery, very dangerous slope.” If privacy laws are to mean anything, they need to apply to governments as well as companies.
But if Google’s on the right side of this fight, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily doing the right thing in making the foulest sort of pornography – rape and incest images, for example – readily accessible to children. If you’d like to see the kind of stuff that Google disseminates, just go to Google Image Search, turn off the SafeSearch filtering (it’s just a checkbox), and do a search on “rape.” Trust me: it’s nasty. Google’s not alone, of course. You can do the same thing on Yahoo – though at least Yahoo forces you to click on two checkboxes before it coughs up the bad stuff.
I know this is a complicated issue. My own instincts run toward the libertarian when it comes to placing controls on what’s online. But there is a case to be made that placing some controls on the accessibility of some online content is in the best interests of society. (In fact, Google is actively censoring video content already.) And even if you reject that case (as principled people can), you need to at least consider the consequences of pretending there’s no problem here. If the internet community doesn’t police itself, it may well end up being policed by the police. Like it or not, some slippery slopes have to be negotiated.