How Google may inform obscenity cases

Now THIS is fascinating. Defining something (like a video, magazine, etc) as "obscene" is often very challenging as the definition itself is vague and relies on what are described as "contemporary community standards". The "contemporary" part is key and explains how, for example, some of the nude magazines one might find in a convenience store today are not considered obscene, but would have been in the 1950s, perhaps.

Then there’s the issue of "community" – in many cases, what people say is offensive or obscene to them may actually be something that they like quite a lot in their own private time, but that they would never say publicly that they enjoy. Case in point: the various lawmakers who make statements or policies that seem to be against sex workers (such as prostitutes), against people who have sex outside of marriage, or against gay or lesbian individuals. And yet later on, it may turn out that they themselves either solicit sex workers, have marital affairs or have sex with members of their same sex. So that begs the question: how to get a better understanding of a community’s values or interests?

Enter Google. Some law professionals are suggesting that search engine terms may help to inform a community’s interests – for example, if a good number of people in a community search for information about orgies or swing clubs, then what does that say about the community and their standards? Interesting question. What do you think? Do Google search terms accurately reflect, or can they come close to informing (even if imperfectly) a community’s standards?

Read the full NY Times article here.


About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at