The war on adult content leaves many in the grey area of the adult industry stranded on precarious ground.
Recent months have marked a sharp increase in the types of businesses that are closing their doors to adult content creators. March saw a number of mainstream payment processors and crowdfunding sites take a staunch position against adult performers, even when their use of these services had nothing to do with creating adult content. In April, Chase closed the bank accounts of a number of adult performers and their partners, including those of performers who were not using their accounts for business. Last month, MailChimp briefly suspended the account of an adult boutique over an innocuous newsletter rounding up sexy apps currently on the mobile market. And now Google is taking further steps to make it harder for adult businesses to make a profit.
Earlier this month, Google sent out a message to adult sites using AdWords to announce that the search giant will no longer accept ads that lead to adult sites.
“Beginning in the coming weeks, we’ll no longer accept ads that promote graphic depictions of sexual acts including, but not limited to, hardcore pornography; graphic sexual acts including sex acts such as masturbation; genital, anal, and oral sexual activity,” the e-mail from the Google AdWords Team read. “When we make this change, Google will disapprove all ads and sites that are identified as being in violation of our revised policy. Our system identified your account as potentially affected by this policy change. We ask that you make any necessary changes to your ads and sites to comply so that your campaigns can continue to run.”
The e-mail included a link to the Google Advertising Policy log, which added, “Under this policy, sexually explicit content will be prohibited, and guidelines will be clarified regarding promotion of other adult content. The change will affect all countries. We made this decision as an effort to continually improve users’ experiences with AdWords.”
Further communications from the Google AdWords Team last week reveal this change will impact not only sites that feature pornographic visuals, but any sites that contain language referring to sexual acts, something that will impact educators in the field of human sexuality.
Sexually explicit content includes graphic depictions of sexual acts, including but not limited to hardcore pornography. This also includes graphic sexual acts such as mastrubation, genital, anal, and oral sex. We will restrict the content similar to the nature of the examples below: images or language depicting any sexual acts in progress, images or language depicting masturbation or genital arousal, images or language depicting any type of genital, anal, and oral sexual activity, language explicitly referencing arousal or masturbation, explicit language to reference genitalia. [...] This includes but is not limited to graphic language describing a sex act or images (computer generated images included) depicting a sex act.
The AdWords Team noted that nudity and “other” adult content will not be prohibited, but that guidelines will be imposed on these types of content as well — a move that will, without doubt, impact a number of photographers and artists.
While this change to AdWords doesn’t affect sites’ page ranking on the search engine itself, it nevertheless represents another example of Google’s increasingly consistent attitude toward adult content across its products. Almost a year ago, Google prohibited the monetization of adult blogs on its free hosted blogging platform Blogger.
“Do not use Blogger as a way to make money on adult content,” read the Blogger Content Policy after the update. “For example, don’t create blogs that contain ads or links to commercial porn sites.”
As with the AdWords change, which tells adult content creators to change their ads so these are not in violation of new terms, the Blogger update ignored that for many bloggers — those posting their sexual experiences, sex toy reviews, erotica, and news in the adult industry — adult ads were often the only monetization option available to them because of their chosen niche. Adult content creators to whom blogging had long since become a source of income faced a simple choice when Blogger cut them off: stay and blog for free or self-host.
Many of these bloggers turned to self-hosting, which costs money to set up and maintain, and lost all incoming links that they had accumulated over the years, which affected their ranking. This is a great loss, as ranking has been increasingly difficult for adult content creators on the search giant. There are two main reasons for this. The first is evident: if Google determines that a site is “adult,” it doesn’t show up on a search when a SafeSearch filter is on, which is its default setting. The second reason is less obvious: an “adult” label makes it difficult for sites to rank normally due to changes in the search algorithm that require that searches specifically signal that the person making the query is looking for adult content — even when SafeSearch is turned off. (To get a sense of how this works, go ahead and run an Image Search for “tits” and then run one for “tits porn.”) Naturally, a lot of users don’t use search in that way unless they are looking for porn, which has the effect of reducing discoverability for adult content producers whose products are not within the porn category but still fall under the Google-imposed “adult” label.
Reliance on AdWords came as a way to slightly even the playing field for adult content creators, by giving their sites prime real estate through ads. As part of Google’s advertising arm, AdWords delivers relevant text ads alongside search results on Google and a number of partner search networks such as Ask.com and AOL, as well as displays relevant media ads across over the million websites and mobile apps in the Google Display Network.
It hasn’t been an easy relationship. For years now, advertisers using AdWords to drive traffic to adult properties faced some level of restriction. A number of adult properties were banned outright, such as those containing “sex-related services and information” and sites that either provide or promote sex work. In 2011, the ambiguity of what, exactly, “promote sex work” means got Google into hot water when they cancelled an AdWords campaign for the Dublin-based Turn Off the Blue Light non-profit, whose site focused exclusively on lobbying for sex workers’ rights.
For adult properties that were not banned, ads were possible, but these ads — marked “Approved (adult)” by Google — could not include images or video, only text, and were blocked in some 30 countries. Even in countries without such restrictions, “Approved (adult)” ads only triggered when people performed adult-specific searches — meaning that all keywords chosen by these advertisers when placing the ad had to be specifically adult in nature. Additionally, members of the web and mobile Display Network were free to bar adult ads on their properties, greatly decreasing the potential exposure for “Approved (adult)” ads.
Despite these restrictions, a number of adult properties successfully leveraged AdWords to get visibility, contributing to Google’s $50 billion advertising revenue last year. But as has been made clear by Google’s recent messages to advertisers of adult properties, this relationship will be coming to an end as early as mid-month, though the revised policy may not appear until July.
The American organization Morality In Media has taken credit for this change, as part of a joint effort with Enough is Enough, Concerned Women For America, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Covenant Eyes, and Net Nanny Community. In May, this coalition met with Google to discuss how to “protect individuals, families and children from exploitation” by putting an end to the tech giant’s involvement with pornography but is highly unlikely that pressure from these groups truly had any influence on the company. For some time now Google has been making policy changes across its products to uniformly distance itself from adult content.
In 2006, the tech giant began collaborating with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and joined both the Technology Coalition, which fights online child sexual exploitation, and the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography, a group of 34 leading banks, credit card companies, electronic payment networks, third-party payment companies and Internet services companies dedicated to eradicating child pornography. Fighting child pornography is a laudable cause and there was little reason to believe that it would impact adult content creators that were operating within the bounds of the law.
But it wasn’t and isn’t simply a matter of child pornography, as Elliot Schrage, former vice president of global communications and public affairs at Google, would clarify in 2007, when he said, “When a child isn’t seeking out objectionable content, but someone deliberately forces such content on them, this amounts to exploitation — and requires government involvement and cooperation by ISPs and other online services.” In short, Google believes that showing adult content to a person who has not given consent or — in the case of a minor, cannot give consent — to view adult content, is “exploitation.”
Over the years, the tech giant has taken more and more steps to restrict the visibility of any adult content to prevent this scenario from happening. Before Schrage clarified the company’s position, Google already had put SafeSearch in place on its search engine to offer users content control. This content-control was pretty hit-and-miss at the beginning, prompting a Harvard study to note, “Google SafeSearch seems to lack a principled or rational basis for allowing certain pages while blocking others. [...] A manual review of additional sensitive search results indicates that this apparent arbitrariness extends to a large number of search terms including searches about sexual health, pornography, and gay rights.”
In 2009, Google enabled users to lock SafeSearch on, making this setting impossible to change unless the person wishing to do had the Google account password of the user that had enforced that restriction. And, as mentioned previously, at the end of 2012 Google tightened its web and image search function to require that users clearly signal that they are looking for adult content in order for it to show up in search results at all, regardless of whether SafeSearch is on or not. At the time, Google clarified: “We are not censoring any adult content [...] you just may need to be more explicit in your query if your search terms are potentially ambiguous.”
In 2010, Google introduced Safety Mode to YouTube, its video-sharing network. Learning from SafeSearch, YouTube’s Safety Mode was launched with the option to lock the filter on the browser, making change possible only with the Google account password of the user that had enforced that restriction. A lesser-known aspect of YouTube’s Safety Mode is its connection to SafeSearch — turning on one also turns on the other.
YouTube, it should be noted, prohibits sexual content outright, but also maintains age-restrictions on videos that contain “Vulgar language, violence and disturbing imagery, nudity and sexually suggestive content and portrayal of harmful or dangerous activities.” Users are encouraged to preemptively age-restrict their own videos, but YouTube might do it for them. The imposed age-restriction can be appealed by “Partners,” people who are part of the YouTube advertising program, but only once. Age-restricted videos are invisible by default, requiring that users log in to their Google accounts and verify their age before they can access them, and are not be eligible to join the YouTube advertising program — though videos from giants like Hollywood and the music industry that one might think would fall under the age-restriction category, such as Beyonce’s “Partition” music video, seem to always get a pass.
In January of 2012, Google’s social network Google Plus lowered the age requirement for users from 18 to 13, which spurred a spree of image-flagging across the social network as the Photos Team made a dash to tidy things up for the newcomers. Due to ambiguity in policy, the results were uneven and concerns about accidentally running afoul of the policy remain a reality for photographers, models and artists on the social network. In April of 2014, Google Plus enabled Pages on Plus to age-restrict much like YouTube, by marking themselves “18 and over” or “21 and over.” To date, Google Plus has not made age-restriction available to Profiles.
Shortly after the Google Android Market metamorphosed into Google Play in March, 2012, they began to stringently enforce restrictions on adult content that they had, up until then, been fairly lax about, going as far as to ban a Reddit app because sometimes posts appearing on that networking service direct to adult sites. At the end of March of this year, Google Play expanded its restrictions on apps to include erotic content as well. If the adult restriction was ambiguous, the ban on erotic makes the situation even worse.
In April, 2012, Google introduced its cloud storage service, Drive, with a content policy that prohibits sharing files that are sexually explicit. “Writing about adult topics is permitted as long as they aren’t accompanied by sexually explicit images or videos, or any material that promotes or depicts unlawful or inappropriate sexual acts with children or animals. Additionally, we don’t allow content that drives traffic to commercial pornography,” reads the policy — meaning that sharing a Doc with colleagues about anything as benign as a spreadsheet of traffic stats for adult URLs could result in account suspension. Individual user tests on this have revealed that the nudes taken by the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz are considered pornographic and sharing them is limited by the service.
In June of 2013, Google updated its developer policy for Glass apps (called Glassware) to prohibit “nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material” and briefly suspended the developer account of the adult Android app store Mikandi for releasing Tits & Glass, an app that would enable users to create and share adult content using the wearable technology. That very same month, Google banned the monetization of adult content on Blogger.
In November of 2013, Google introduced Helpouts, which connect people who need help with experts via Hangouts video chat (previously GTalk and Plus in-network Messenger). The tech giant made its position on adult content abundantly clear from the get-go, banning experts on topics such as: “Dating sites, dating services, general dating advice or companionship services; Abortion; Birth control; Adult dating, companionship, or escort services; Excessively exposed skin/nudity; Non-fine art containing nudity/adult concepts which are gratuitous or intended to be sexually gratifying, lingerie; Sex toys and other sexual wellness products; intimate massage; Strip clubs; Adult job searching sites; Mail order brides; Content intended to arouse; Pornography; Otherwise sexually explicit content.”
A month later, it was revealed that the Android KitKat update packed a list of 1,400 banned words to prevent these from auto-completing or auto-correcting due to their “adult” connotations (bizarrely, this list included things like “lactation,” “uterus,” “STI,” and “preggers”). A similar list of banned words for predictive search on Google Instant had been discovered shortly after its launch in 2010, but it recently drew attention once again when activists found that “bisexual” was still on that blacklist in 2014.
A number of the moves that Google has made in the past decade are to ensure that it is not seen as profiting from pornography, but a great deal more have been made to prevent adult content from showing up when people don’t want it. Unfortunately, based on accounts from the many users who have reported suspension for content violation on any number of Google services — myself included — and the amount of content that should be age-restricted or disallowed by those same standards, but isn’t, it’s obvious that the company doesn’t have an internal consensus on what qualifies as “adult” content. This lack of clarity on the part of Google has created an unsafe environment across its services for adult content creators, who are basically waiting for the inevitable accidental policy violation that will result in their loss of access to everything from Gmail to Google Calendar.
Unlike porn sites that might be considering turning to ICM Registry’s dot-xxx top-level domain, its adult-only search engine, and ad networks, “gray area” adult content creators that are not in the business of pornography will not fare better in that competitive pornography-centered space — and that’s not even getting into the obvious concerns about how trivial it would be to block the domain extension in the root zone, thus censoring the entire digital adult ghetto.