Home > Google, News & Updates > Google censors ‘Lolita,’ but not ‘bestiality’

Google censors ‘Lolita,’ but not ‘bestiality’

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It seems similar to only yesterday that news surfaced that disobedient words were being replaced by hash marks on Android phones.

Should you have missed this only puritan activity, words such as the very common one start with an “f” were being censored by the built-in voice-to-text characteristic found on Google’s mobile operating system. Even the latter half of “BS” became “####”.

This appears; however, not to have been the semi of it.And I am particularly thankful to Zechariah-Aloysius Hillyard from Boston who put his Droid and his endurance through their paces in the quest for, well, accursed freedom.

Hillyard was surprised to find that a search for “Nabokov Lolita” became “Nabokov” when transcribed by Google Voice (safe search was switched off). This seemed strangely picky of the software, especially as Hillyard told me he tried the search after enjoying “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” a book that itself wonders what should be acceptable and what not.

So, encouraged by my own curiosity, he delved further. “Ass” seemed to be acceptable. However, “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” became “Oklahoma, All Ye Faithful,” followed by ” All Ye Faithful.”

“Scum” and “Scumbag” appeared to encounter a huge hash of resistance, although the second time he tried “Scumbag,” he got “Futurama” (the cartoon).

“I wonder how many words there are,” Hillyard told me in an e-mail. “The arbitrariness of it bothers me as an American and as a curious person. Do I get my phone service terminated if I get too many’s?”

Any fear he might have experienced quickly dissolved as he began to delve further into the Android underworld.

“Incest” was hashed, but “bestiality” was fine. And if you’re wondering what other works of literature might have been made a hash of by Android, well, you may be relieved to hear that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” enjoy no restriction. However, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was a vast no-no.

Google’s original clarification for this phenomenon to Reuters went as follows: “We filter potentially offensive or unsuitable results because we want to avoid situation whereby we might misrecognize a spoken query and return blasphemy when, in fact, the user said something completely innocent.”

I would be interested if other readers have experienced similarly innocent linguistic peculiarities. However, is it really likely that any human or machine would misrecognize “Lolita”? Especially when it is uttered in the very close juxtaposition to a word that sounds mightily like “Nabokov”?

I understand restriction. We all censor ourselves every day. But did Google’s engineers actually sit around and make value judgments about what might be misrecognized and what might not?

I have already asked Google twice to additional enlighten its clientele on this very attractive encounter between technology and moral philosophy, one that is surely more charming than anything currently on TV. I have yet to take delivery of a reply.

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