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Nov 19, 2009 at 1:19pm ET by Matt McGee
Saying the host site was serving malware to users, Google has removed a controversial photo of First Lady Michelle Obama from Google Image Search. The site itself, however, remains listed in Google web search results without any visible malware warning.
Welcome to the murky world of free speech, politics, and Google.
It began last week, when Search Engine Roundtable pointed out a racist image showing as the number one result in Google Image Search for the term [Michelle Obama]. The image was apparently removed yesterday.
In a Google Web Search Help Forum thread discussing the image, a Google employee named Jem explained yesterday that there are three reasons why Google would remove content from its index:
“… Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results, or images from our Google Images results, simply because the content is in very poor taste or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the image, 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 image.“
An offensive photo of Michelle Obama doesn’t obviously violate any of those three guidelines on its own. Google’s press office has yet to respond to our request for an official statement. But in the comments of today’s Search Engine Roundtable post, Google’s Matt Cutts says the site was violating Google’s webmaster guidelines:
“… that page did violate our webmaster guidelines because it was serving malware to users, which violates the quality guideline that says ‘Don’t create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware.’ I believe that the Images team did a general anti-malware sweep.”
Sure enough, a [site:] search for the site in Google Images produces no results. But the malware sweep apparently didn’t reach the main web search index. As Michael Gray points out on SER, the site itself is still listed in Google.com search results with no malware warning.
Making matters slightly murkier is that, as you see above, the image was hosted on Google’s own blogging platform.
Google’s critics will no doubt call this favoritism toward the Obama administration and be quick to point out the company’s ties to Washington, DC. Google CEO Eric Schmidt endorsed Obama for president, later campaigned with him, and then turned down an offer to join the administration. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Google was the fourth-largest corporate contributor to Obama’s presidential campaign. And we’ve reported about a few notable Google employees who’ve left to work for the Obama administration.
On the other hand, we’ve also written more than once about potential friction between Google and the Obama administration. Christine Varney, the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust has been quoted as saying that Google “has acquired a monopoly in internet online advertising.” See our stories Will Obama Be The Downfall Of Google? and Google’s Anti-Trust Problem Appears Very Real for more.
If, in fact, the blog hosting the offensive image of Michelle Obama also hosts malware, Google’s removal of the image seems justified in light of the company’s stated policies. But, in that case, a malware warning should also be placed on the site itself in Google’s main search results. Until that happens — and perhaps even after — Google’s critics are likely to question the decision to remove this image.
While today’s episode may be a case of Google looking for an excuse to remove an image from the index, it should be said that the same exact image of the First Lady can be found on other sites and remains in Google Image Search because those sites apparently don’t meet the criteria for content removal. There are similarly offensive images of the President himself that can be found quite easily in Google Image Search, too.
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