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Google won't exclude distorted Michelle Obama image from its site

'We have, in general, a bias toward free speech,' a Google spokesman says, explaining that offensiveness alone is not a reason to remove the image from the search index.

November 25, 2009|By David Colker

A crudely altered photograph of Michelle Obama, which often comes up as the first result on a Google image search of her name, will not be removed from the company's search process despite protests that the depiction is racist and repugnant.

"It's offensive to many people, but that alone is not a reason to remove it from our search index," Google Inc. spokesman Scott Rubin said Tuesday. "We have, in general, a bias toward free speech."

The image, which depicts the first lady as having monkey-like features, is posted without explanation on a blog called Hot Girls -- which also contains several legitimate photographs of Obama.

Although Google won't alter the process that places the offending image among its top results, the company placed a house advertisement with the headline "Offensive Search Results" above the picture. Clicking the ad leads to a statement that says, in part, "We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google."

The statement apologizes "if you've had an upsetting experience using Google," but it states that Web pages are not removed from its process unless the content is illegal or violates the company's webmaster guidelines. Rubin said nothing in the guidelines deals with this kind of imagery.

Google has posted similar statements in rare instances, notably in 2004 when searches for "Jew" yielded a virulently anti-Semitic site as the top result. Rubin said the statement is sometimes used in situations in which there are "offensive search results on an innocuous query."

The Hot Girls blog has an additional Google connection: It was produced using Blogger, an online tool owned by the search company. And it resides on the Blogger platform, which hosts blogs and is also owned by Google.

Rubin said Blogger users have to adhere to the site's terms of service, including a ban on hate speech, which the agreement defines as "content that promotes hate or violence towards groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status or sexual orientation/gender identity."

Rubin would not comment specifically on the Hot Girls blog. But he said that a determination of hate speech, under company terms, would heavily rely on whether a site was "attacking or advocating attacks on a person."

"An image alone may not provide enough context to constitute a violation of the policies," he added.

A different website containing the same altered image of Obama was banned by Google several days ago, but only because the site was deemed to contain malware that could spread a virus or similar online malady. When a site is dropped from Google's index, the search engine will not present it as a result.

david.colker@latimes.com

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