As an employee in the Internet filtering industry, people tend to think I’m either trying to sell them something or paranoid when I talk about how easy it is to stumble into unsavory places online. Past childhood, they think that being Internet savvy is enough to keep them from viewing anything they don’t want to, but the truth is, we rely on search engines to find us the results we’re looking for online, and anytime the control is out of our hands, there’s the possibility of something unexpected happening.
I recently watched the second season of Stranger Things, and I was struck by how much Eleven resembled a young Larisa Oleynik, whose face dominated my television during my preteen years. I posted an opinion on Facebook, and someone countered with a picture of a young Natalie Portman. Driven by a desire to prove just how much closer I was with my comparison, I pulled up Google, went to images, and typed in “Larissa Oleynik young”. Now, I frequently turn safe search on and off because of the nature of my job, and at the time of this search, it was unfortunately off. Google apparently read my description, gave a response of “naw,” and instead searched “Larissa Oleynik nude”. It happily stated, “Showing results for ‘Larissa Oleynik nude’, under which it said, “search instead for Larissa Oleynik young” (you know, what I typed in.). I thought “whoops, I must’ve misspelled ‘young’,” so I went back and tried again, paying special attention to what I typed. Nope. Still got “Larissa Oleynik Nude”. At this point, I turned safe search on and tried it again, to the same effect only when it searched the nude option, it didn’t show any results. I discovered eventually that this issue was that her first name is spelled with one ‘s’, rather than the two I was typing in, so I was technically misspelling something, but not the adjective in the sentence. A mere mistype of a name changed my search results from benign to xxx.
This isn’t the only time Google Images has spit back nudity in a benign search. It’s notorious for eventually turning up pornographic imagery when Safe Search is not turned on. I’ve stumbled upon nudity and other questionable material searching for completely innocuous terms, and just from my experience in this position alone, I can attest that most childrens’ cartoons have porn of them online and searching for their names can quickly land you in a world of pornography. So what do you do?
Obviously, I would recommend a content filter. It is most likely to catch both intended and unintended pornography. At the very least, I would recommend making sure all of the browsers on your computer are set to their version of safe mode, if they have them. This won’t stop all of the bad stuff from getting through, but it’s definitely better than going online unprotected.