Here’s a question: how comfortable would you feel typing the word “lesbian” into a search engine in the office? Or maybe while a parent pottered about behind you? Or even, perhaps, not in incognito browsing mode?
If your answer is “not very”, then you’re probably aware that it’s a term that has more often than not returned salacious results. It’s the online reflection of the far-too-frequently sexualised, real-life reaction to female sex-same relationships.
Now that has changed. After a long-standing campaign by a Twitter account dedicated to the issue, @SEO_lesbienne, and the French news site Numerama – which found that typing in “lesbian” returned a wall of porn, which was not the case for “gay”, “trans” or other LGBT+-related terms – Google has announced a tweak to its algorithm. Users are now met with a Wikipedia page, BBC News stories and newspaper comment pieces. Although, after testing this, I’d argue there’s still not the wealth of information and range of results that are returned when typing in “gay” or “gay men”, for example, but it’s still a definite improvement. (There is, however, still a paid ad for lesbian porn on page one of the results.)
Google made the change not long after it displayed a rainbow flag on its logo during Pride. Perhaps the company realised that explicit search results such as this appearing underneath the symbol of LGBT+ rights was not a great look and undermines its allyship, given that gay women are so often treated as entertainment for men (the attack on two women on a London bus, for refusing to kiss, happened just two months ago). Google’s vice-president of search engine quality, Pandu Nayak, said the search results were “terrible, there’s no doubt about it. We are aware there are problems like this, in many languages. We’ve developed algorithms to improve this [and] taken measures in cases where, when there is a reason for the word to be interpreted in a non-pornographic way, that interpretation is put forward.”
But this isn’t the only example of concern for Google when it comes to its algorithms reducing LGBT+ people to their sex lives. Gay YouTubers have found that their videos are being demonetised, made inaccessible via search and age-restricted (requiring users to sign in to prove they are over 18). This, despite the fact many of these videos consist merely of interviews, advice and comedy sketches, and often are specifically targeted at young people who may be struggling with their sexuality and turn to the Google-owned YouTube as a source of support.
Two content creators, Bria Kam and her wife, Chrissy Chambers, along with six others, are now suing YouTube for “discrimination, fraud, unfair and deceptive business practices” and “unlawful restraint of speech”. This has a real-world impact, as Chambers says: “Age restriction means we can’t reach the young women who look up to us, who need us as a sense of community and support … When I think about YouTube shutting down our content, it gets me all fired up because they are literally having an impact on someone living another day.”
Remarkably, Kam and Chambers (who have more than a million subscribers between them) found that a video that YouTube had asked them to make, as part of a campaign called #ProudToLove, had quietly been demonetised since. Meanwhile, though, these LGBT creators are not being allowed to earn money from advertising, YouTube is permitting homophobic adverts to run alongside them or as pre-rolls, including anti-gay marriage missives. There’s also a lack of action on homophobic comments. Kam and Chambers aren’t the first to complain about this state of affairs – the hugely popular gay British YouTuber Alfie Deyes has also raised the issue.
In an interview with Deyes, the YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, said that “the [LGBT+] community has been an incredibly important part of YouTube” and denied that related content was automatically demonetised. But in 2017 the company admitted that it “sometimes makes mistakes”, including putting age restrictions on videos with titles such as Coming Out to Grandma. “The bottom line is that this feature isn’t working the way it should.”
And Google is far from the only culprit. Twitter, notoriously, is slow and in many instances useless at cracking down on online hate speech and harassment (in whatever form it comes in). Dick Costolo, the former Twitter CEO, even once told staff in a leaked memo that the company “suck[s] at dealing with abuse”.
Prejudice against LGBT+ people is on the rise: leaders who have used homophobic language are being elected across the globe – from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who once said he would prefer a dead son to a gay one to Boris Johnson in the UK, who referred to “tank-topped bumboys” in an old column. That makes it more important than ever for the internet platforms that so monopolise our attention, opinions and politics to get on the right side of these issues.
• Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist