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Google won't remove distorted Michelle Obama image from search engine

November 24, 2009 |  7:09 pm

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 spokesman Scott Rubin said. "We have, in general, a bias toward free speech."

The image, which depicts the first lady as having monkey-like features, is posted on a blog called "Hot Girls" without explanation. The blog post also contains several legitimate photographs of Michelle Obama. (The image is also posted on other sites that get high spots.) 

Although Google won't alter the search result process that places the offending image in top spots, the company placed a house advertisement above it with the headline, "Offensive Search Results." Clicking on the ad takes the user to a statement that says, "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 a site is not removed from its process unless the content is illegal or violates the company's webmaster guidelines. Rubin said there was nothing in the guidelines that deals with this kind of imagery.

Google has posted similar statements in rare instances, most notably in 2004 when searches on "Jew" resulted in the top spot going to a virulently anti-Semitic site. Rubin said the statement is sometimes used in situations when 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 provides online real estate for blogs and is also owned by Google.

Rubin said Blogger users have to adhere to the site's terms of service, but he was unaware of any language in that agreement that would affect the use of the Obama depiction.

A different website containing the same depiction 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

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