The Google Ogle Defense: A Search for America's Psyche

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Question: Do you think your Google habits -- your random, untethered wisps of thoughts manifested as search terms like "unexplained hives" and "Kate Beckinsale single?" -- can be bundled together to paint an accurate representation of your morality?

This was the question floating around the periphery of a recent obscenity case, in which a Florida attorney planned to argue that Google records of pornographic searches were an indication of community values.

The trial was to have begun on Tuesday; last week mainstream media speculated on its outcome. Instead, the case settled out of court with defendant Clinton Raymond McCowen -- who had also been charged with racketeering and prostitution -- agreeing to three to five years in prison.

So the viability of a Google defense remains untested, but the 21st-century psychological implications remain:

Are we what we Google?

(Dear God. Hope not.)

Our story begins online, as many lurid things do these days, with the pornographic Web site of McCowen, a Pensacola area man who produced X-rated material for Internet purchase.

Our story develops through the creativity and tech-savviness of his lawyer, Lawrence Walters.

Obscenity charges hinge on the vague concept of community standards -- whether allegedly obscene material would fall under the public's definition of decency. Walters found traditional barometers (skin flick selection in local video stores, etc.) bogus. "What we really do in our bedrooms is much different than what we admit to doing" in public, he says.

Enter Google Trends. It's a Google tool that graphically displays the day's most popular search terms, or lets users compare multiple terms' popularity over time. A few days ago in the District, for example, "Brad Pitt" was kicking the butt of "George Clooney," and everyone suddenly wanted to know about "air conditioning."

Theoretically, it's a direct line to our innermost thoughts and desires, and those of friends and neighbors.


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