Google has apologized for racist images of Michelle Obama that appeared when users searched for the First Lady. The first image result was an ugly depiction of Obama's face altered to look like a monkey. Google banned the site carrying the image saying it contained a virus. When the photo reappeared on another site, Google let it stand but displayed an in-house ad that redirected users to this statement from the company:
"Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google."
All in all, I don't object to what Google did if they're telling the truth. But something about the story makes me feel a little queasy.
I don't like that Google banned the Web site for the seemingly-too-convenient rationale that it could spread a virus. If it really was a malware site, then fine. But this looks an awful lot like censorship, even though the thing it's censoring is thoroughly objectionable. The Internet is unwieldy boundlessness of content, some of which is utterly depraved. But that's to be expected when you're talking about the sum of all knowledge and information in the world. Racist images aren't illegal. And researching examples of racism online isn't only legal, it's can also be useful for journalists, social academics and anybody trying to piece together fragments of the zeitgeist. Google isn't the editor in chief of the internet, it's a curator. It's job is to organize and I hope it doesn't delete or de-index content just because it's offensive -- and especially not because it's offensive to important people.