January 5, 2010

Back over Thanksgiving, the news of the day was a picture of Michelle Obama resembling a monkey topping Google results for the First Lady. Offensive? Yes. But we’ve all been on the Internet long enough that it’s not surprising or anywhere near as bad as it could be (that may or may not be a bad thing and is a completely different subject). So why was it news? Because Google felt the need to pull site off its results (their story is that it potentially had malware) and then, when the picture resurfaced, they posted an apology for it.

I’ll come right out and say I think Google had no business doing anything about the picture. No one would deny that racism is still extremely prevalent. I don’t think anyone would argue that this is one of the worst things they’ve seen online (if it is, you clearly have not been online that long). And in all honesty, having an apology for this shows a clear bias. I mean, if you image search for George Bush, within the first page is a picture comparing him to a monkey (not to mention the first picture is him eating a kitten – gotta laugh at that one). Why doesn’t he get an apology?

Censorship, as we all learn in school from book banning and whatnot, is terrible ground to be walking on. And Google is a smart enough company that I’m surprised they’ve even stepped so close to the line. Search engines (and not just Google) have positioned themselves as unfiltered information sources. Fantastic given the how often people search, and especially fantastic given that almost half the searches are coming through Google. But let’s be honest, the results are still within the company’s control.

It’s tricky. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft – they could easily manipulate search results and most people would never know the difference. In fact, is it even common knowledge that Google won’t display ads for cigarettes or guns? Or would you have just thought those tobacco companies hadn’t bought any keywords yet? But this doesn’t bother me. Google’s business is ads, and they can accept or decline money (and ads) from whomever they want, as they see fit. I’m all for running your business in line with your values. But if suddenly search results started favoring certain opinions while burying others, it seems horribly wrong. Why? After all, it’s part of their business.

I guess I’ve always been ok with big companies making decisions because they’re big and at a certain point, can run their business how they want. And usually it’s ok because there’s some sort of alternative, possibly a little bit harder to get or more expensive. But it’s there. With search engines, I’m not seeing that other option. Sure, one could visit several different sites to do the research, but you’d still be limited to the site you know of. All those small sites, and all their information, would fall through the cracks. Sad; it makes me feel so dependent.

ps. I don’t, in any way, expect censorship from search engines. It’d be a terrible business decision. As David Winer points out, “they’d instantly fall apart”.



  1. I think I remember reading somewhere that Microsoft was offering companies money to delist on Google in exchange for strong listing on Bing.

    Search engines are a dirty business, like any other.

    IF it were true that the original popular listing was a haven for malware, I thank Google for removing it at first.

    As for the apology, I think it’s a fantastic thing. Yes, it shows a clear bias in favor of minorities, but since when do white people need help with racism? This is a white-dominated country where most of the money and power lie within the hands of the white folk, plain and simple.

    Google is a powerful company that definitely has no need to be socially responsible, but what harm is there in them flat out editorializing that they think it’s a terrible thing to compare a black woman to a monkey? It is a terrible thing. I think Google should do this more often. Not that it will really help make the world less awful, but I don’t see any problem in them saying that it’s not cool, especially since the result is still the top search and is not being actively censored.

    I support freedom of information and no censorship, but I also think that it’s ok for Google to say that they don’t support something when they don’t. I know it’s a double-standard for Obama vs. Bush, but it really hasn’t been all that long since humans were actively comparing Africans to monkeys and claiming it made them inferior. It’s not cool.

    • I don’t know Dan.. it seems kind of like a very large slippery slope.

      The hotel I’m staying at right now in Salt Lake City has a content filter on its wireless, and it’s blocking http://www.vgcats.com and http://www.nuklearpower.com, both for inappropriate content.

      VGcats I can maybe understand, but 8-bit Theater is pretty clean. The only thing that might be ban worthy is that it’s a little bit violent(and not even very graphically.. it uses 8-bit NES sprites…)

      The jump from Google censoring racism to the Mormons blocking out violence isn’t a huge one. Both are being socially responsible.

      • Except that Google didn’t actually censor racism (so they say), they’re just saying they don’t agree with it. The result ostensibly disappeared because it led to malware.

    • I know! That’s why I’m torn. On one hand, they should be free to editorialize as much as they want. There’s nothing (but a bad reputation) stopping them from only displaying information they agree with.

      However, would I think the same if their viewpoints significantly differed from mine? Not even to any extreme sense (like thinking Africans are like monkeys) but say…if they were very pro-life. If they can apologize for racism, then they could apologize for (or maybe demonize) what the very pro-life side thinks is murder. And then, what happens if they were to bury that information, making it extremely hard to learn about abortion (other than that it’s terrible) for girls who might need that knowledge.

      And of course racism does exist and it is terrible. But I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for other people’s problems. It opens a flood gate. Should they apologize for anti-semitic results? Or results that would glorifying smoking? It’s not changing anyone’s point of view.

      • I’m totally cool with them actively not supporting a result through their adspace, but I would be strongly hesitant if they started mucking around with search results.

        Not that they don’t already do that. We all thought it was funny when I’m Feeling Lucky searches for Complete Failure went to George Bush pages (or something like that)

  2. A few points.

    1) Google (and other search engines) already censor pages when they work in other countries (::cough::China!::cough::). It’s the cost of doing business there and American countries accept it.

    2) Democracies are not immune. Australia and Britain, and a few EU countries are filtering sites off the net and they are democracies. It’s all in the name of saving children, but cue slippery slope argument.

    3) Michelle Obama == Monkey is not equal to Bush eats a cat. One is racist and one is inane.

    4) Google has taken action with respect to the Bush thing Dan mentioned above with “I’m Feeling Lucky” and George Bush. People had Google Bombed the search term and that’s against google’s terms of service.

    5) Google allegedly already does mess around with the search results. Lots of companies have threatened to sue over being dropped to the second page over stuff that clearly shouldn’t beat it.

  3. […] section of the post focuses on China wanting to filter search results. We all know how I feel about that. However, at least to me, it comes off like Google has considered this decision for some […]

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