So much has been said over the past four years about the so-called â??War on Womenâ?ť conservatives are allegedly waging against half the U.S. population, but a real war against the rights of women is occurring every single day on some of the most powerful websites in the world: billion-dollar search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoftâ??s Bing.
Itâ??s a problem that has gone largely unnoticed by most Americans: Powerful search engines give billions of people access to hundredsâ??possibly even thousandsâ??of videos that show women being sexually abused in extremely disturbing ways.
Criminals videotape themselves sexually assaulting women and then post the videos to pornography websites that allow users to upload media anonymously or by using an alias. Most of the women in these videos are young, heavily intoxicated or drugged, and in many cases they are unconscious. In just one afternoon of cataloguing videos, I found dozens of videos of women being raped, which together had been viewed more than 21 million times.
Pornography websites rely heavily on search engines to receive much of their traffic, so porn sites ensure their websites are set up to receive the best placement possible in search enginesâ?? search results. Google and other search engines provide their users access to these pornographic sites, earning a profit from the increased advertising revenue that comes from having additional site traffic.
Users who find these horrific rape videos in the â??videosâ?ť section of Google not only have access to the videos themselves but also can â??previewâ?ť images that appear in the search results the search engines provide. This means users do not ever need to leave Google to see graphic pictures of these rape victims.
Over the past four months, Iâ??ve made multiple attempts to get Google, Yahoo, and Bing to ban the repugnant videos, but not a single video I found in Julyâ??when I first discovered this problemâ??has been removed, despite all my warnings.
Because many pornography websites are based overseas, where laws to protect women from sexual crimes are minimal, very little can be done by U.S. law enforcement to halt these videos from being distributed by pornography sites. This leaves victims with virtually no way of preventing these videos, which clearly fit the legal definition of obscenity, from getting into the hands of millions of people.
Although there may be nothing that can be done to stop pornography websites from displaying rape videos, public pressure could force search engines to consider changing their policies so these videos are not so easily accessible. If search engines agree to permanently ban any website that shows rape videos, after giving a specified period for the websites to remove the material, this problem could potentially be solved overnightâ??especially with porn websites relying so heavily on search engines for their traffic.
Search engines that do not change their policies could be at risk of violating federal, and possibly state, law. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says on its website, â??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.â?ť
â??Obscene materialâ?ť has largely been defined in important Supreme Court cases, such asMiller v. California (1973). From those cases, a test has been formulated to determine whether material is legally categorized as obscene. DOJ outlines the test online, indicating that â??[a]ny material that satisfies this three-pronged test may be found obscene.â?ť The following are the â??three prongsâ?ť:
â??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);
â??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
â??3. Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.â?ť
Itâ??s hard to imagine any reasonable person would argue videos showing young women being raped, sometimes violently, fails to meet the obscenity test, but there are questions about whether search engines are actually â??distributingâ?ť the material.
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, says scholars donâ??t agree on exactly what constitutes â??obscenity,â?ť 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, â??we would be better off with sharper legal concepts that are less vulnerable to overreach and misuse.â?ť
â??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,â?ť said Franks.
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 donâ??t find themselves in violation of state or federal law.
Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have rightly been concerned in the past government agencies are becoming, or threatening to become, too involved in the Internet. The Internet may very well be the greatest invention in human history, and having thousands of bureaucrats regulate everything thatâ??s said online is a truly terrifying thought. But if powerful websites refuse to act responsibly, increased government intrusion will likely be impossible to avoid, and no one should be allowed to violate federal laws designed to protect helpless victims.
Central to the Americans experiment is our citizensâ?? acknowledgement of a responsibility to protect one anotherâ??s rights and liberties. If we fail to stand up now to help women who have been abused in appalling ways, we ought to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves how long it will take for our own rights and liberties to disappear as well.