Months ago, few Americans had heard of former Senator Rick Santorum or knew that a search of his name brings up an obscene gay sex term. But last night, Santorum became a leading contender to represent the Republican party in this year’s presidential election. Is this a problem?
Santorum’s search engine ordeal began in 2003 after he made a series of anti-gay comments in the media. In response, columnist and gay-rights activist Dan Savage led a successful campaign to push a new definition of “santorum” to the top of search listings. The results of that campaign can be seen in the following screenshot taken this morning:
As the image shows, the leading result for “Santorum” is the website “spreading santorum.” The Google (NSDQ: GOOG) search results page also displays a definition that wouldn’t be printable in a family newspaper and a click on the top link brings up an obscene graphic.
When the former Senator was a relative obscurity, Savage’s search engine campaign was (depending on your point of view) either mean or a funny and effective political tactic. But with Santorum’s newfound prominence there is a real possibility that six-graders across the land will encounter “spreading santorum” in the course of a civics class assignment. And it is not just a “Google problem,” as Politico described it in September, but a full blown search phenomenon. A search of his name brings up the same results in Bing and Yahoo!.
What can Santorum do? For now, not much. The First Amendment and America’s defamation laws for public figures mean that a lawsuit is out of the question (and would probably spur even more interest in the site).
Santorum tried approaching Google in September but was reportedly rebuffed. According to “In the Plex” author Stephen Levy, founder Sergey Brin once wrestled with the same issue over the fact the word “Jew” once brought up offensive sites, but ultimately decided that the company’s search results should not be tampered with.
In the long run, the social conservative may eventually be able to dislodge the “spreading santorum” site if he can gain more fame as a mainstream politician than as a gay-rights opponent. As SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan explained in a definitive article on the Santorum phenomenon, McDonald’s was slowly able to push down unwanted search results like “McCruelty.” But given the vigor of his opponents, there is no chance Santorum will be able do this anytime soon.
The most sensible course of action for Santorum may be to agree to Savage’s proposed truce in which he will take the website down in exchange for Santorum recognizing gay people as equal citizens. In doing so, he would be accepting a position that is receiving support from courts, the federal government and most Americans. I can also attest that my own aunts are enjoying a happy life together after getting married in Canada five years ago and that, strangely, Canada hasn’t turned into a giant gay bath house.
In the meantime, parents worried about their children learning too much from their civics lessons can change their Google search filter from “moderate” to “strict.”