The uproar over a racist image created with the use of a photo of First Lady Michelle Obama and posted online is nothing if not understandable. Such images naturally spark outrage in anyone with any sense of decency, and the sheer hatefulness that generates them rightfully compels us to hold the hate-mongers accountable. But when innocent parties are among those charged with accountability, the injustice is no less outrageous than the original offense. That's why Google is owed an apology.
The finger of outrage was pointed squarely at Google when the offensive image appeared in search results relating to Mrs. Obama. How could Google allow such a disgusting image to appear on the results page and thereby enable an exponential increase in the number of times it would be viewed?
The question bespeaks an ignorance that is no more acceptable than the ignorance that spawned the offending image. Blaming a search engine for what results it finds is like blaming a lamp for what it illumines. If Google is to be faulted for anything, it should be faulted for failing to take full advantage of the controversy for an obviously much-needed teaching moment.
Google came frustratingly close to handling the flap perfectly. Under the heading "Offensive Search Results" at the top of the results page, Google provided a clear explanation of how its search results work:
"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. Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site's ranking in Google's search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results."
Google went on to explain why it didn't remove the image from the results list, as some finger-pointers had demanded:
"Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Although Google reserves the right to address such requests individually, Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the page."
It was a clear, reasoned explanation, and Google would have served the public well by leaving it at that. Unfortunately, it concluded with a totally inappropriate and unnecessary apology:
"We apologize if you've had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results."
That single statement enabled the media to breathlessly report that Google had apologized for the offensive image. The implication, necessarily, was that there was some wrongdoing on Google's part. If it hadn't handled the matter inappropriately, why on earth would it apologize? In a sense, its willingness to become the scapegoat in order to help quell the disturbance was laudable, but perpetuating and legitimizing an ignorant proposition serves no one's best interests.
Google-and, more importantly, the Web-viewing public-would have been much better served if Google had stuck to its principles the way it did three years ago when it took so much heat for following Chinese censorship laws in China. Google apologized to no one for its actions in that case, despite the furor that arose in the U.S., because it was doing the right thing: It was abiding by the laws of the land in which it was operating.
In the U.S., there is no law that prevents Web sites from posting racially offensive images, and few of us would want Google to unilaterally decide what legal content should be omitted from the results of our searches. Google had absolutely nothing to apologize for, yet an apology remains in order. It should be humbly offered by anyone whose finger of outrage was pointed at Google.