Last week, Google users look on in horror as we shared the story of Dylan, a man who was a huge fan of Google’s Web services until he was suddenly locked out of his account with no warning or explanation. His Twitter campaign had the intended effect, getting the attention of a senior VP at Google who fast-tracked an appeal and got Dylan an explanation and his account access back. So what really happened?
Dylan says, it was all part of his research for an art project, stored on Picasa and caught in a routine scan Google does to sniff out illegal material hanging out on its servers.
I am a former art student and for the past year I have made my living as an artist. Three years ago I had been preparing a compilation of images to participate in an art show entitled “The Evolution of Sex” featuring a set of images, not my own, which I felt depicted the increasing violence and growing absurdity of pornography over the past 2000 years. I have posted a partial selection of the images, which are completely innocuous and can be viewed by following the link at the end of this letter.
The image that they considered a violation of the Terms of Service is not among them and was more explicit, but it was created by the same photographer as the overtly suggestive last image, whose work is apparently well known and contentious for the obvious reasons of skirting legal boundaries. The only thing that is aggravating is that in the same folder they flagged, which was also titled “The Evolution of Sex,” are images of well known ancient Pompeii fertility statues, pre-historic examples including the Venus of Willendorf, a page from a French anti-pornography series from the 1800’s, one version of a common and well known advertisement that has been snuck into phonebooks nationwide since the 1950’s that is subversively pornographic (check your phonebook, or Snopes, it’s still very common in the UK), the cover from an issue of Rapeman, an infamous Japanese comic book about a superhero who rapes the wives of his enemies as retribution and can also be hired by corporations to rape the wives of thieving employees, and a picture of a vending machine on a street in Japan which claims to sell used young girls underwear.
Google employs an automated system to scan user storage for violations of their ToS and in the process erroneously flagged one of the images in the folder as child pornography, it’s as simple as that. I am not angry at Google about this, as some might suggest, only because I too found the image bordering on the limits of what is legally permissible and hoped to highlight the fact that it is allowed to exist within a grey area of legality. The fact that it has caused this controversy only emphasizes that point. Google was unable to speak with me about it for legal reasons and it was Vic Gundotra who fast-tracked the appeal process once he learned of the situation through Twitter and personally investigated. When I asked him what would have happened had he not intervened he said the case would have gone through the regular appeals process and may have taken weeks to be sorted out.
Google additionally offered to remain further silent on the cause of the account suspension out of respect for myself and they supported whatever statement I chose to make because they, like everyone else I spoke with today, likely assumed people wouldn’t understand and considered an accusation of child pornography, whether false or not, to be too much of a hot-button issue to discuss on Twitter with any maturity and rationality. I, on the other hand, do not. If the mere mention of the words child pornography causes peoples ears to fold in on themselves so be it. But I’m not going to coddle that segment of society. I consider openness and frank discussion to always be the best path to take and people can decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me.
My account has now been reinstated in full with all of my data intact and I would like to thank Vic Gundotra for his personal attention to the matter. He went out of his way to resolve the issue and he had wanted to tell me sooner but he was bound legally, as was Matt Cutts, from doing so because Google is unable to discuss a case in which any accusation has been made of child pornography, and I obviously and completely forgive him of that. Additionally he has said that Google is proud of their zero-tolerance policy, and is reviewing how they address Terms of Service violations and will hopefully in the future find more direct ways of communicating with their users who are accused of ToS violations.