Racism, Google and censorship

Last week, Googlers may have happened across an atypical image of Michelle Obama, who is usually the very picture of style and grace. This particular representation depicted her face with ape-like features, eliciting a chorus of outcries for the image to be removed and Google’s content to be better regulated.

The picture was described by some in the media as racist — derogatory towards African-Americans and disrespectful to the First Lady. It was claimed that Google was condoning racial prejudices by allowing such content, and consequently should offer an apology and adjust the subject matter accessible through its search engine. That’s right, cries for a censored Internet were heard across a country whose citizens swear by the First Amendment.

Fortunately, Google refused to offer an apology, remove the image — although the site which hosted the image did take it down — or alter its search engine algorithm. It clarified that offensive images can sometimes be found when using its services, and if users are concerned, there are alternative search options available. Logic, and not knee-jerk emotional reactions, prevailed.

Demanding censorship of the Internet is a terrible idea. Offensive content is regarded as such due to its subjective nature, and submitting to a populist outcry about one image opens the door for demands to filter others. Racist images, sexist images and their ilk would all have to undergo the same scrutiny and suppression. Furthermore, questionable or challenging images are not seen as unpleasant universally, and what one individual finds distasteful can differ quite dramatically from the opinion of another. Photos which may serve an educational purpose can also be unintentionally offensive. Can we really claim that an objective method of determining an image’s offending potential exists? Additionally, Google has already encountered issues with its SafeSearch option accidentally censoring HIV awareness sites.

SafeSearch may not be perfect, but Google is at least offering the option to filter out explicit images if the user so chooses. If an individual feels the need to put restrictions on their search engine, then they are welcome to do so, but Google should not be further required to act as a parent over that person’s shoulder. I would much rather be given the choice to filter certain images as opposed to being restricted from the outset — it would be unacceptable not to be allowed to view content simply because the gatekeepers at Google determine that it is offensive. Google is not there to sugar-coat the world and withhold subject matter that may make some people uncomfortable; it is a search engine, a consolidator of already accessible information, and nothing more. The picture of Michelle Obama with the facial features of an ape may come across as racist, but it is not Google’s role to police such images.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this uproar for stricter regulation of Google’s content is that there are thousands of pictures of non-black people being ridiculed with the same ape-like face when you search their names (George Bush, Tony Blair, Bunker Brown, Nick Griffin, Wayne Rooney, etc) — none of these photos have induced public outrage. It is conceivable that our society has become so concerned with not appearing racist that our actions have the opposite effect — we artificially create prejudices, and then attempt to suppress them, even though they do not actually exist.

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