Quantifying community standards one Google search at a time

A Florida lawyer has found a novel use for search engine data in presenting a court case. Defending his client from obscenity charges, Lawrence Walters seeks to show that the “community standards” in Pensacola aren’t as lofty as some might expect. The New York Times lays out his defense tactic in “What’s Obscene? Google could have an answer“:

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. [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.

I’m reminded of an old Tom T. Hall song about another southern community. In “Harper Valley PTA,” a single mother is accused by her school group of being unfit to raise her middle school daughter. She “wears tight skirts,” and has a drink or two in public — with men, no less! The song has our protagonist defending herself:

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites

Of course the song ends with her accusers chastened and her “fitness” as a mother confirmed. Relatively speaking, of course, taking into account the prevailing Harper Valley community standards.

It will be interesting to see if a more high-tech version of this shaming defense wins the case. I have no affection for the industry that’s being defended, but if a jury of non-technologists can find the data presented reasonable and compelling, it will be a sign of just how quickly “John Q. Public” is coming around to viewing behavioral data as a yardstick of social attitudes.