Google today, in an unprecedented action, removed what they deemed to be an “offensive” image of First Lady Michelle Obama from their search result pages. The image was one of the first images to come up when users did a Google search for “Michelle Obama.” When the issue first became a news item, Google responded by releasing a statement, “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.” They followed that up by today’s action of removing the image from the search results.
This is a watershed moment in online content and the presentation of such. Google has long been an advocate of online transparency and freedom of information. Their approach of openness has ruffled the feathers of some authors and other content providers who feel that Google is treading dangerously close to copyright infringement and other intellectual property snafus.
Their general policy of “Organizing the World’s Information” which has been their mission statement for years, is now being questioned as they removed an image which was neither graphic nor violated any copyright laws. It was simply “offensive” in nature.
Since “offensive” can be interpreted in so many ways, this move by Google will leave them wide open to criticism over what they allow and disallow within their search results in the future.
I have always been a proponent of their goal to “Organize the World’s Information.” Now that it appears that they will only be organizing information that is not offensive, I am less enthusiastic about their plan. The fact of the matter is that in a democratic and free society individuals are going to encounter situations and content which are not in line with beliefs or policies. Content that might even anger or offendus. That does not in any way mean that we should not have the opportunity to express those views or have them open to interpretation, discussion and debate.
What’s even more disturbing is that Google is also appearing to pander to a notable figure. If I were to encounter an unflattering image of myself within a search result, could I now demand that Google remove it from their engine? I think not.