Sometimes one is confronted with an absurdity so self-evident that it defies an introductory sentence. So, I wrote that sentence instead. But what’s got me gobsmacked today is a story by Adam Sherwin writing for The Independent explaining that Google insisted the popular music site Drowned in Sound censor images of certain album covers on the grounds that they are “sexually explicit” and, therefore, violate existing policy that Google will not serve ads to sites with “adult or mature content.” Really? Last I checked, half of Google’s arguments for failing to address matters like contributing to piracy were based on a stance against censorship.
First of all, I can login to YouTube right now, search the word sex, and get scads of results with sexually explicit thumbnails. In fact, many of these thumbnails link to videos that are not so explicit as the pictures imply. So, I guess it’s okay for Google to use pornographic thumbnails in a bait-and-switch ploy to get users to click on videos that are ad supported, but if an artist depicts the naked human form (newsflash, artists do this sometimes) in a painting or other medium, then Google can arbitrarily label it “adult mature content” and out of bounds? I know one man’s art is another’s pornography, and this subjectivity is an important standard for the protection of free speech; but somehow mainstream advertisers seem to know pornography when they see it because you won’t find their brands on actual pornographic sites (I asked a friend). But consider this…
One of the covers targeted by Google for censorship was for the album OH (Ohio) by the band Lambchop. The irony in this case is pretty thick considering the painting depicting two lovers in bed in the foreground with a scene of police brutality through the window in the background evokes of one of the most famous visual themes in the history of Western art — that of Olympia. Probably the most well-known and most overly-adapted Olympia is Manet’s painting of the nude courtesan, which debuted in 1865. It was scandalous in its time, not so much for the nudity but for the blatant depiction of a prostitute looking right at the viewer. The Lambchop cover is a painting by artist Michael Peed, a friend and former professor of frontman Kurt Wagner, and Peed references the familiar Manet composition to create a scene that is provocative in our times. The counterpoint between the intimacy of the lovers and the abuse by the police is a wry statement that one can interpret as one may choose, but that it should be censored by Google of all entities has got to at least make you wonder what all their pro-culture, pro-speech horse shit is all about. Take this for what it’s worth, but the censored version with pixel blurs over the “naughty bits” inadvertently makes an even more disturbing statement about America — that sex remains offensive while police brutality is not. Well played, Company That Shall Not Be Evil.
We should not lose sight of the significance of an entity like Google exerting its influence, even in this small case. An individual advertiser may, and should, choose what kind of media associations best suit its brand. You probably won’t see Betty Crocker commercials during Adult Swim, for instance. But should an ad service business — and in this case the only ad service business — be entitled to arbitrarily label creative works “sexually explicit” and requiring censorship? If Peed’s painting meets that definition, then so does nearly every nude in every museum and gallery in the world. I thought the Internet was the proverbial garden of free expression. I also thought Google was just a neutral highway that has neither interest in nor responsibility for the manner in which users drive.
Admittedly, even for Google-scale hypocrisy, it is an enigmatic choice to commit such a blatant act of censorship where there isn’t even a hint of gray area regarding the works in question. Is this the result of killjoy bots? Or is it a sign that Google will soon be throwing even more prudish sops to its new conservative friends among DC influence-peddlers? No matter what the thinking (and I use that word generously) may be in this case, the disturbing implications of the precedent cannot be overstated. To be outside the Google universe is to be effectively off the web, at least as far as monetization goes. This is an absurd amount of power for any single company to wield. And seeing as we are no longer able to distinguish between corporations and people in the United States, I’m not at all ready to let the whims of centaurs in Silicon Valley or anywhere else define what it means to be indecent.