Google, Sex and Censorship

Men Only Tayside is a sexual health partnership which has developed beween NHS Tayside Sexual Health and Tayside’s Blood-Bourne Virus Managed Care Network which aims to provide unbiased information and sexual health services for men who have sex with men (MSM) and men who have sex with women and men (MSWM) in the Tayside area of Scotland. Recently, they have been the focus of media attention after developing an app, in conjunction with local firm Faff Digital, to support the information on their website.

The Men Only Tayside (MOT) app was accepted by Apple to the Apple Store with the caveat of a mature (17+) rating, but was rejected outright by Google Play, the main provider of apps to the Android market. Reported in the Dundee Courier, Google’s response to the developer John-Paul Thain, was that the app violated their stance on gratuitous sexual content, in essence equating it with pornography. The rejection was appealed, and again turned down.

Looking over their website, the information is succinct and well-presented. They provide information on their campaigns, volunteering opportunities, how to obtain free condoms and sexual health testing in addition to providing a wealth of unbiased information on common sexual behaviours and how to stay as safe as possible if you choose to experience them. It also includes information on HIV diagnosis, local support and legal information.

If it was aiming to provide arousing erotica, then I’m sorry to say that it fails miserably. The MOT app’s content presumably mirrors that of their website, where the nudity on display is a single male nipple (as an android user, your humble blogger is unable to review the app itself…).

The app’s developer believes that part of the problem is Google’s automated app assessment system, which seems to equate any kind of sexual content as being pornographic. As Google is essentially the gatekeeper for Android users to legally download apps, their prudish filtering essentially denies those users access to high-quality, impartial sexual health advice. Whilst it may have legal obligations to prevent the supply of pornographic material to minors, does it also not have a duty of care to those who are legally entitled to engage in sexual behaviours. In the UK, there is no divison between the legal age of consent for men who have sex with men versus those who have sex with women. This age is 16, and Apple’s maturity setting already puts this app out of reach of young men who can engage legally engage in sex with other young men.

The app’s problem relates to the idea of net neutrality, and whether Google has a public duty to allow this information to enter the public domain. Google is not a public body, it’s a corporation in the same way that Facebook, Apple and Twitter are, which means that it essentially retains the right to decide whether it supports certain information provision or not, regardless of whether or not users have a legal right to access this information. Should this be the case? Does Google occupy the same position as a restaurant where a woman wishes to breastfeed? In UK law, this may be the physical property of a company, but has been deemed a public place, and as such, a company is unable to prevent the woman from feeding the infant, regardless of nipple visibility.

Google’s policy, automated and dictatorial, is not a good one. Apple’s confusion between health advice and erotica isn’t either. The problem of private companies acting as gatekeepers of cultural morality is not a new one. Walmart, a supermarket chain in the United States (and who control ASDA in the UK) have a longstanding policy of refusing to stock music which has been labelled with the “parental advisory” sticker indicating explicit content. With their large stake in the market, this puts pressure on artists to avoid lyrics that are controversial, ultimately acting as indirect artistic censorship. Ultimately, our confusion between private company and public body is not good either, and perhaps it’s time for us to start questioning our own stance on the matter.

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