Google’s latest decision to tighten censorship on its Blogger platform has come as quite the surprise for its 500 million active users. In a major change that critics have called ‘prudish’ and ‘paternalistic’, the new adult content policy for Blogger essentially means that:
- Existing blogs with ‘sexually explicit/ graphic nude images or video’ will be forcibly made private after March 23, 2015. This means that such blogs will only be able to be viewed by owners, admins, and people with whom the blog has specifically been shared. They will also not be found through search engines.
- The only other options are to remove such content before the new policy kicks in, or export the blog to more liberal platforms such as Tumblr.
- New blogs (created after March 23) with such content may be removed.
It’s a harsh and unexplained about-turn for a platform whose content policy specifically prides itself on “self-expression and freedom of speech”. Since it’s Google we’re talking about here, the change is also far from inconsequential – according to 2014 comScore data, the tech giant corners more than half of the explicit core search market. This means that for affected bloggers, their audience will effectively disappear overnight.
Scroll through social media and you’ll find plenty of outspoken critics of the decision. Violet Blue, owner of human sexuality blog tinynibbles.com, tweeted that, “Censoring this content is contrary to a service that bases itself on freedom of expression.” Another blogger, Carin McLeoud, pointed out its futility: “Google’s email about adult content on blogger treats adult content as though it harms people and nothing comes from it.” The news has also sparked debate on Google product forums, with bloggers describing it as ‘completely unwarranted’, ‘sneaky’, and in one case, ‘totally crap’.
Any outrage, however, seems limited to the Western part of the world; local response to the announcement has remained sparse so far. The only Singaporean blogger I can find who’s posted a response is Smith Leong, who — despite going by the provocative title of Singapore Sex Blogger — has a pretty much safe-for-work blog, and even claims that it was inspired by the Health Promotion Board. He lamented that, “some of these blogs are dumb and silly but never the less they are my memories.”
So why hasn’t this news generated much controversy in our little corner of the world? The reason may lie with Singapore’s comparatively more stringent regulations on graphic content. In 2011, for example, top blogger Xiaxue’s video “Kissing a girl” — yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like, i.e., Xiaxue kissing another woman — was removed from lifestyle channel Clicknetwork by the Media Development Authority. She justified the video as being both a publicity stunt and something that stimulated open discussion about tolerance in Singapore.
And it’s not just blogs — we Singaporeans are simply far more accustomed to sexual censorship of our media (make that censorship of all kinds). There’s the laundry list of films and shows banned for their sexual content, such as Last Tango in Paris or A Night On the Water; even Sex and the City used to be banned.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s our notorious and supreme love of food. Sure, we have some sex bloggers, but in Singapore, the blogs with the widest audiences are typically food or lifestyle — think Ladyironchef, Seth Lui and Xiaxue. I’m sure the fallout would be spectacular if Blogger were banning food porn instead.
So, Should We Be Concerned About Censorship?
That’s kind of a trick question, actually. The word ‘censorship’ has gotten tangled up with all sorts of negative connotations; I seriously doubt that anyone can respond with an uncomplicated ‘no’.
The effect of Google’s latest decision might not be as strong as we expect; we can find plenty of explicit images elsewhere on the Internet, after all. Affected bloggers can move to other platforms and perhaps rebuild their communities. The Internet isn’t going to come to a standstill just because a bunch of people can’t post their favourite erotica.
But for these bloggers and their viewers, the debate extends far beyond pornography. For them, the issue is also about censorship and its adversary, freedom of expression. Here, I’ll let Lauren Weinstein, a prominent American technological activist, explain it:
“It’s undeniable though that due to its highly controversial and widely variable definition, restrictions on “explicit” imagery in particular have long been at the forefront of freedom of speech issues and concerns…
The reason is pretty obvious — how governments and corporations handle these “edge” materials…can be harbingers of how they will deal with other sensitive and controversial matters that fall into free speech realms, including access to historical information already published, political information and criticisms…”
(Source: Lauren Weinstein)
There’s also the fact that in the age of social media marketing, blogs are one of the best channels for artists to promote their works. Local artists such as Toastwire may have to place their faith – and perhaps their livelihoods – in Google’s important, if vague, caveat to the new policy:
“Note: We’ll still allow nudity if the content offers a substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts.”
In the past, the labelling of blogs as ‘adult’ by Google has often been a point of contention with their owners – often, those covering LGBT issues or sex education were lumped into the mix. Is it possible for Google’s guardians of public morality to accurately differentiate between what’s ‘artistic’ and what’s just plain old lewd?
Unfortunately, the complex debate surrounding censorship isn’t something that is likely to be resolved now – or ever. Ever since we understood that information was powerful millennia ago, we’ve been trying to control it. Perhaps the best thing we can do for this issue is to continue to think, write and share about it.