Can Google Trends be used for community standards?

Image: my quick and dirty Google Trends search for “cum” in Florida.

I was wondering when the Internet was going to begin to be applied in obscenity cases with regard to establishing — or arguing — what “community standards” for porn are. In an oversimplified nutshell, something pornographic is deemed obscene and therefore illegal when a jury somewhere says it is, according to local community standards. Which is I think why a lot of obscenity cases are happening in conservative Florida. However, in a current obscenity case, one defense lawyer is planning to use Google Trends to show statistically what locals look for online — and it might show that Floridians have a whole different concept of what’s tolerably pornographic when they’re online.

The trial is for Clinton Raymond McCowen, aka Ray Guhn, who operates ejaculation fetish site A circuit court judge ruled last October that when the Ray Guhn obscenity case went to trial (that’s like, now), the jury must consider community standards of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties in Florida. Mccowen’s counsel had already argued that Florida’s obscenity laws should not be Federally applied to the internet. Today the NYT reports in What’s Obscene? Google Could Have an Answer, snip:

Judges and jurors who must decide whether sexually explicit material is obscene are asked to use a local yardstick: does the material violate community standards?

That is often a tricky question because there is no simple, concrete way to gauge a community’s tastes and values.

The Internet may be changing that. In a novel approach, the defense in an obscenity trial in Florida plans to use publicly accessible Google search data to try to persuade jurors that their neighbors have broader interests than they might have thought.

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

It is not clear that the approach will succeed. The Florida state prosecutor in the case, which is scheduled for trial July 1, said the search data may not be relevant because the volume of Internet searches is not necessarily an indication of, or proxy for, a community’s values.

But the tactic is another example of the value of data collected by Internet companies like Google, both from a commercial standpoint and as a window into the thoughts, interests and desires of their users.(…read more. Link via Mother Jones, where I have no idea why they’re calling McCowen a “porn king”. Thanks, Praemedia!)

Update: Oooo, this piece in Reason Magazine has a nifty graph!

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