Somewhere hidden deep within Google’s massive cache of servers, there is a blacklist unlike any other. For starters, it contains enough sexually suggestive terms to make any 15-year-old boy’s head explode. But there are also some unexpected words, like, say, Latina. And hidden from public view, the official version will never see the light of day.
But over the past few weeks, a group of hackers in New York City has been trying to crack the code.
The list started with Google’s new search function, Google Instant. Introduced in early September, it shows results as you type—as opposed to waiting for you to press enter. It works like a telepathic Internet concierge, hoping to send you along to the most relevant results on the Web.
And since its debut, the hackers at The Hacker Quarterly have been reverse-engineering search terms and making a list of words that the company’s algorithms have blacklisted, in an attempt to sanitize its real-time results. In other words, as you enter these words or phrases into your search bar, letter-by-letter, you’ll eventually be faced with a blank page.
One of the first search terms they realized Google had blacklisted was “teen.” That led to other words, like “adult,” and then certain ethnic and religious groups, but, then, not others. “Like, lesbian, why is that in there?" wondered Emmanuel Goldstein, the editor.
The group continued its experiment by compiling a list of 30 words that every kid in America wants to know to improve their “repertoire,” he explained, and then testing to see if Google Instant would return any results.
Some of the simpler terms they’ve since identified as blocked are obvious enough—words like clitoris, anal, or hookup. Others, like pedobear, rusty trombone, and wrinkled starfish are less so, and might require an embarrassing lap around the Internet to figure out the intended meaning.
On the flip side, terms such as buttcrack, fag, and “how to commit genocide” aren't blocked at all, while ass, lesbian, and Latina are.
A few bands even turned up—Barenaked Ladies and the New Pornographers. Even the 1961 film Babes in Toyland was deemed NSFW. And it wouldn’t be a true blacklist without some people on it. A number of porn stars, sex writers, and a few companies in the adult industry found themselves banned, too.
So, how did Google come up with these words in the first place? The answer, not surprisingly, is hidden in an algorithm that Google never quite explains.
Responding to a user query in a help forum post on September 14, a Google employee named "Kelly F" tried to go into the specifics of the word "lesbian." It was the result of a bug, she said, and the company was working to see if it could be fixed. "These results are available but require you to hit Enter," she added in clarifying the problem struck only when using Google Instant.
"It's important to note that removing queries from autocomplete is a hard problem, and not as simple as blacklisting particular terms and phrases," said a Google spokesperson.
Still, the blacklist is more than a computer glitch for those who found themselves on it.
Shanna Katz, a Phoenix-based sex educator whose results were deemed offensive, finds the whole episode incredibly frustrating and arbitrary. “This means that people looking for me as a sex educator may feel that I'm 'violent' or 'pornographic' because I don't show up," she told me, adding that even her Facebook and LinkedIn profiles were blocked. “It’s completely random.”
Try searching for the popular newspaper column “Savage Love” by Dan Savage in your search bar, for instance, but don’t hit enter. As you near the end of the word “love,” you’ll eventually be faced with a white screen. Or, how about “playboy?” Nothing. Try using Google Instant to find information about Ducky Doolittle, a New York City-based artist and sexologist. Nada.
The consensus among the banned is that Google is aiming to protect us from stumbling across a gallery of penises when searching for quality Italian meats. They get that.
But what’s upsetting to most is the incompetence Google’s algorithms have displayed in selecting which words and phrases can stay, and which must go.
But this blacklist isn’t really anything new for industry vets such as Anne Semans, marketing director of the Oakland-based sex-toy store Babeland.com (whose own name returns no Instant results). Hers was one of a few businesses left out by Google.
“What Google is doing is making it easier for people to find really specific information related to a search term. In a sense it's like we're not getting the same kind of courtesy of that functionality,” she said, adding, “It's easier to find a tip for how to remove an ink stain than how to have an orgasm.”
Ducky Doolittle says she’s used to being banned, having been on the Internet since the mid-'90s.
“I know some people are all in an uproar about it, but the truth is, my fans know where I am. It's so common we get censored or closed down,” she says.
But Semans says she believes the search giant doesn't want raunchy terms to be the default in Instant, so its users don't become overwhelmed. She gives the example of somebody searching for "breast cancer," who probably doesn't want to be confronted with a swatch of fake DD breasts, but she acknowledges that the double standard can go both ways.
"I just laugh because I was searching for 'condom,' as people have always confused certain words, like ‘condom’ and ‘condominium.’ So when I searched, 'How to put on a condom,' a popular and important search, the first thing it prioritized was 'condom with teeth.'" A condom with teeth is a defensive device that can be used by women in areas where rape is used as a weapon of war.
"It just leads you down these weird rabbit holes. All of a sudden you're learning about putting on a condom with teeth,” she said. “But that's the byproduct of technology; it's not always going to make sense."
Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.