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Google apologizes for its search engine

November 25th, 2009
01:00 PM ET

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/11/25/google.art.jpg caption="Google has apologised for an offensive image of Michelle Obama."]If you have typed “Michelle Obama” into Google image search recently you will have been presented with a racially offensive image of the U.S. first lady as your number one image. Sad but true.

Google happily concede that “search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet.”

So the news that they have been issuing apologies for the image and other photos relating to anti-Semitic material has caused something of a stir in cyberspace.

Missives on the subject from Google HQ have come thick and fast in recent days. “We apologize if you've had an upsetting experience using Google," one statement said.

Another sought to reassure users that “the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google."

Further explanations followed on “computer algorithms” and “subtleties of language” causing “anomalies” which Google cannot predict.

One might conclude that Google were keen to distance themselves from the offensive material. But did they need really need to issue such detailed explanations and apologies?

Aren’t the vast majority of people using the Internet aware of its capriciousness and are prepared to accept that sometimes, unfortunately, strange things result from a few harmless keystrokes? Indeed, the Internet’s scope and randomness is often part of its appeal.   

There are plenty of offensive websites and images on the Internet, but did we need Google to explain that to us?  Was Google right in the way they behaved? Or do you think they should remove the offending image? We want to hear what you think. Post your comments below.

Filed under:  General
soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. Das Goravani

    I'm a computer professional and international person. It seems to me what they did was appropriate. Covering their corporate assets is noticed, ie, an ounce of preventative apologesturing is worth a ton of follow up legal wranglings from ethics lacking persons seeking to sue big corp over anything. I find that tons of my clients DO NOT get that the internet is the way it is. Many old people in Asia are VERY offended by the content of the Internet. We're not all in NY. I happen to be a hip Californian, but I know the world, they are my clients.

    November 25, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  2. evenshin

    sometime i do get some upsetting experiences with using search engine. expecially, on the nude pictures, totally uncensored,
    i think google should appologize for this offensively racial pictures,. cause. it is straying the character of her,

    November 25, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  3. The boss

    blame the search engine instead of the website?

    the leaders of global free speech are looking to censor?

    I am against racial and religious attacks, but whining about it will only encourage people. I only tried to find the image because they complained to a news agency, who then reported it.......

    November 25, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  4. Andrew

    It may seem like a mountain out of a molehill, but I think Google was just being proactive in their PR efforts. Obviously, they cannot be held accountable for which sites are popular searches on the internet – but some people who are not internet-savvy may not see it this way.

    November 25, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  5. Alexa

    I think the internet has more offensive images than that of Michelle Obama. I have not seen the picture in question, but I cant imagine that its worst than any child pornography or violent photos you can find on the net. I think Google should spend their energies and money trying to have images such as those removed!

    November 25, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  6. Daniel

    I don't think Google had any need to express regret, but I couldn't say it hurt. they're taking the high road. However Google should focus on educating users on exactly how search engines function, and what sets Google apart. By apologizing Google may give the wrong impression to some users that Google has more control over the search results than they let on.

    November 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  7. queuebert

    Did Google NEED to explain it? No. But I do understand why they chose to. So many people use them as a gateway to a variety of content on the Internet and their name gets thrown around in all sorts of contexts.

    To the tech-literate, "I did some research on Google yesterday to learn how to make a bomb," doesn't implicate Google per se, because many people know that Google automatically archives and stores any content its crawler comes across. But less tech-savvy people hear things like that on the news and Google seems like the bad guy for providing the link to the information.

    If you remove the image in question, you're setting precedence for behavior in the future. If Group X doesn't like Image Y and Google removed an image on similar grounds before, there could be a flood of cases. Personally, I would enjoy seeing an offensively racist image of the first lady as the number one image if I was searching for her. Travesties like that keep in mind how far we have yet to go as a people.

    November 25, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  8. Ozgur Zeren

    Of course not, for what google points out in this subject are all technicalities of Artificial Intelligence, leave aside web. The spiders crawl the web and the software ranks them. What we have in our hands, is what we can have at this level of Artificial Intelligence technology. AI tech is not advanced to the point that we can teach it to be 'politically correct' when sorting out search results yet. This is all baseless unnecessary controversy that should be dropped.

    November 25, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  9. Harry Pfeffer

    Who wrote this piece? "but did we need Google to explain that to us? " YES – as the largest search engine in the world it makes perfect sense for Google to be a good corporate citizen and explain to it's users what may happen when a search is launched. The author of this story is a child – no?

    November 25, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  10. Bishonnomahmud

    This apology only proves that Google did it and then freaked of getting caught.

    November 25, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  11. Victor Folorunso

    Well to me l think it makesl sense for google to apologise, as the largest search engine in the world,

    November 25, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  12. idiko

    Google CHIEFS must apologise openly and without delay, or the consequense of their stupidity would be enermous.

    November 25, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  13. Show me the picture...

    Who complained?

    Show us the picture, we then can decide if it is offence...

    I am more offended and feel stupid commenting on something I have not seen.

    November 25, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  14. Jeffrey Kirkman

    Google has NO reason to apologize.

    Google is a search engine and has no responsibility for what others put up on sites which Google does not control. If we go down this path of expecting Google to apologize for images, where will it stop.

    Must Google apologize if I do a search of "God Kansas church" and I am offended that a picture of a sign reading "God Hates Fags" comes up? NO, of course not.

    There are many things that are offensive and to ask if Google should apologize is for this is simply ridiculous.

    November 25, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  15. Ozgur Zeren

    it seems that the 'political correctness' has become a real problem in america to the extent that it even starts to hamper technology. excuse me people, but there are NO forms of search engine technology in the world to provide the political correctness you people demand.This is the way it is. Nobody needs to apologize for that. Not google, not altavista, not yahoo, nobody.

    Either get real, or learn about technology, or quit using google if you dont like the level current world search engine technology is at. Its that simple. You americans are really overboard with your demands. There are some things in the world which wont happen regardless of how hard you 'demand'. If you want to make it happen, quit your job, enroll in a tech program and work to improve search engine technology.

    November 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  16. Bonnie

    Did not see the picture on Google because when I tried to, my mouse froze, however what I really find interesting is that had it been a picture of Laura Bush, Google would probably be torn down LOL

    November 25, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  17. Bob

    can no one spell apologize anymore?

    November 25, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  18. TNT

    Is it a GOOGLE thing or our own freedom of expression biting us in the rear? I personally havent seen the pic yet but I suppose a country that boasts of freedom of expression and an out-the-door moral life should have little problem with things of this sort, except GOOGLE finds it a MORAL obligation to apologize.

    November 25, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  19. Patrice

    Obviously, this shows that the Internet is a people driven entity and the search engines are not regulating it. Nor should they. They are not responsible for the content of people's websites, just helping people to find them. When you type in a search, anything can come up. It is up to the individual to interpret and choose from what they hit. If you can't handle that, then don't use the Internet..

    November 25, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  20. Steve M

    Google is not responsible. Plain and simple. They do not and SHOULD NOT remove this content. Infact, the only thing controversial about this whole debacle is how the media covered the story.

    This entire situation is taken way out of context by the media. This is a classic case of bait and switch. Nowhere in this article does the author even mention where the photo came from, or that this is not an isolated incidence.

    The photo comes from a joke website where MANY celebrities photos are edited to look like monkeys. Not just Michelle Obama. Instead of report this, the media just ignores it.

    Unfortunately the media is consistently ignorant or blatantly misleading. To misrepresent the facts and/or ignore the details and also claim yourself to be a responsible journalist is simply dishonest.

    November 25, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  21. Roger

    I searched for the picture, and found it. Nothing special, and certainly nothing for Google to apologize for. Stay real people and learn how things work in this world....and...stop bickering like a bunch of chickens.

    November 25, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  22. Joan S

    It's standard good customer service to apologize when a user has a poor experience associated with your product, whether or not the product or company actually caused the problem. Why is this a news story?

    November 25, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  23. Bas

    Google is just an indexing service. It would be like accusing the phone company of murder if they listed a murderer in the phone book.

    November 25, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  24. goofox

    fox news is much worse in making the first family look like an ass....they never appologise so why should google!!!!

    November 25, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  25. Chris

    how do we reconcile that darwin can teach all our kids, black or white monkey or not that we all decend from apes and yet a picture of a black person looking like a ape is racist..pls explain..? arent we all from apes and what ever happened to comedy..look in your paper..there are political characters being penciled as many things pleading with public or scetched to represent something or other..their noses are long , their legs short, what has the world become that only black people cane sue for being offended, when we should all laugh at ourselves and allow free speech and art..if bill clinton is a donkey tomorrow is that a crime, monkeys are not , if you beleive in darwin limited only to black people..ask black people if god is white or black.., will black people start suiing churches for painting jesus as a white man, is that racists..come one ..!!

    November 25, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  26. Johan, Sweden

    Well... My 10-year old daughter searched Google Images for photos of a specific breed of rabbits (French Lop, called "fransk vädur" in Swedish). She was presented with a photo of a Fleshlight (Google the word if you are not familiar with the product) and clicked her way forward to a site selling sex toys. After clicking around on about 10 different related products (as we found out by the browser history), she closed the browser window. A day later, she asked us why anyone would want to buy a rubber penis that can move. Now, that is one question that Google couldn't give me a good answer for...

    November 25, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  27. Amrik H.

    To Mr Das, how are you exactly an international person, how do you define an 'international person' ? That statement just completely voids whatever else you have to say. And to say many 'old' (they are called senior citizens by the way) people in Asia are offended by the content of the Internet, is completely idiotic and without facts. I am an Asian from Malaysia, and you are basing your statistics on absolutely nothing. Do the world a favor and stop posting baseless, idiotic messages on websites. In order for you to better serve you 'clients', learn more about the world you live in and get out of that box you are currently in.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  28. Corey

    Now that I think about it, I actually saw the image doing a search for Michelle Obama and didn't think anything of it. Welcome to the internet, you have been warned.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  29. Marcos

    I could never understand discrimination of any kind. The idiot that did such abject thing ought to be executed in public square. Maybe he (or she) thinks he is pure perfection and will not die someday and then, his ( or her ) body will rot beneath the earth

    November 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  30. Ozgur Zeren

    i also want to say that the ramping-up of this issue by Cnn to create a 'newsworthy' item is also disturbing. this kind of behavior is more fitting of fox news than cnn.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  31. AJ

    Freedom of speech is freedom of speech. I like Google–they did the right thing by adding a disclaimer. Eliminating the offensive material is still censorship unless of course it is illegal.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  32. Andres

    The first lady is a very important person in Americans lives, obviously google did the right thing. They reflect with a very kind comment that they respect the public opinion, nevertheless they do not share the same point of view.

    It is impossible for a algorithm decide what is offencive or not, but googles administrators can (as all can people do) express their thoughts.

    November 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  33. Jakob B

    The image was offensive & stupid.
    However, to sensor the Internet is an impossible task, which cannot be the responsibility of Goggle. Take the so-called "Danish Cartoons", which created so much noise aboutfreedom of speech". The Internet is an excellent venue to air views & it equally expose dum or uneducated opinions or views.

    November 25, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  34. T1Brit

    Why the bloody hell should Google apologise? It is insane ! It is like asking a printing press to aplologise for the books printed on it.

    November 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  35. bach

    Certainly "Google" is not responsible

    November 25, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  36. Hussien Atara

    We all love the Obama's; but google is a search engine that shows people what is mostly searched on the internet. I personaly think that google didnt have to apologies. Although it did it is showing the world how respectable it is.

    November 25, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  37. Jeremy P

    Of course Google shouldn't apologize. There are far worse things on the net than Michelle Obama looking like a monkey.

    November 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  38. rutendo

    I live in a third world country where freedom of expression is NOT a right, but an enviable privilege for those living in a country like yours. Many of us will never experience it in our lifetime, and yet it is amazing and disappointing to observe how those of you who are privileged to enjoy this right use and abuse it. Such a privilege should be used to further the aspirations of all humankind, not to hurt or be disrespectful to fellow human beings....I guess its a matter of you never know what you have until its gone.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  39. Peter onu

    It is unfortunate that people have taken the advantage of freedom of speech and expression to write or say whatever they like or want.in my own oppinion, google shouldnt ve allowed any one or group of individuals to publish such atticles,i mean for no reason whatsoever. it isa racist act and also discriminative. i think is had time some ruthless and undesireable elements that calls themselfs journalist to be put to trial or brought to question over some of their publications.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  40. josee

    many people in this world deserve to be killed like the one who can bring his home town mind and display michelle obama in that way .i wish your in asian or africa where we are allowed to stupid people.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  41. Rotr. Owolabi O. Akeem

    Normally,Google should apologize to Michelle Obama .Why is Google now denying Michelle Obama's image when she've been given so much Credit for other search results on her website. Would she have denied the image if it hasn't being offensive & racially discriminating.....? Making Peace start from apology . It's a small world afterall !

    November 25, 2009 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  42. NameDoesNotMatter

    Google did not create that image and they did not put it on their homepage.. That it is the top result means that their algorithm says that the image is on a big and important website and that many other such websites link to this website.. If you do not like this algorithm use a different search engine – bing, yahoo, cuil etc..
    If anyone should apologize it should be the website who put up that image, and the websites that link to it..
    But even that is unnecessary as freewill – freedom of speech and expression is the greatest good..

    November 25, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  43. michael

    you got to learn to laugh at these things, and see them for what they are. If black people are offended by this image it shows child like insecuity. There must be millions of images on the net that could be seen as offensive to white people but we take it in our stride and laugh it off.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:35 pm | Reply
  44. Charlie Smith

    The essence of a free country is to speak freely, in this case, Google has a right to publish anything it so desires. However, from the business point of view, Google does not want to upset the President, the most powerful man in the world, and makes a decision to apologize. The question is whether should Google also apologize to people who are less powerful than the President. When is it going to end? Our first amendment only covers people who speak against other governments and countries, but when it comes to our own country, we have a different standard. Our free speech is not exactly free and why do people still believe in it. The reason is very simple, most of them are really DUMB.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:35 pm | Reply
  45. Avraham Reiss

    At least Google apologized for something they had not done intentionally. CNN is often anti-Israeli in a most dishonest fashion from the point of view of reporters'-integrity . This is systematic.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  46. Eric

    Of course they should not apologize.
    They did not create the content and it should not be their responsibility, practice, or even right to censor content.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  47. Donnie McLemore

    What fuels these types of websites is this very type of media coverage. Were it simply an oversight and we moved on, no real reason to push it or pursue it from either side, but when big news media gets their hands on it, suddenly racially charged websites are popping up out of nowhere, because it's all the fad now. Great job CNN... Are you guys in bed with Microsoft and "Bing"? Sounds like an attempt to convert users.

    November 25, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  48. kaico

    Hi, I am a Nicaraguan living in Nicaragua but always on the web in reading CNN also, there are millions of disturbs images on the web that nobody care about, but at lease Google are shooing there respect to the president of the USA I think they did the right thing to apologies even while others may thing thy shunt do so hey guys if you does not agree with your president he is still your president and he will be so for a next 2 years at least so live with it, respect to be respected that’s what Google do.

    November 25, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  49. twitter.com/whybs

    Google doesn't have to apologize but it's cool that they do.

    If we want to promote tolerance (I.e. less extremists), perhaps Google and other organizations could make it simple to identify the specific individual(s) who post extremist views/pics/etc, thus protect freedom of speech & help minimize extremist ideologues!

    November 26, 2009 at 12:47 am | Reply
  50. Jeremy P

    I notice no-one ever complained about the website that compares George W. Bush with a Chimpanzee. It's equally insulting, though in W's case it insults Chimpanzees. Google wasn't asked nor required to apologize for that, and neither are they responsible for this. You can use Google to search for porn, and no-one complains. You can use it to search for "anal secretions" and no-one complains. So no, Google not only has no need to apologize, it shouldn't. Those who do complain are guilty of trying to suppress the first amendment, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

    November 26, 2009 at 1:55 am | Reply
  51. Uknown


    this is one of the most racist forums in the universe. Type in the N word in google and boy will you find out what they say about black people.

    It's a pretty childish thing if you asked me.

    November 29, 2009 at 5:13 am | Reply
  52. Brittany

    I believe it is a good idea for all search engines to remove offensive material not just Google. i do think it is a good idea that Google apologized for what happen seeing that it is the first lady, and they had nothing to do with intentionally. Google has a right to publish anything it so desires. However, from the business point of view, Google does not want to upset the President, the most powerful man in the world, and makes a decision to apologize.

    November 30, 2009 at 1:44 am | Reply
  53. Paul Doulos

    Google should not apologize. It wasn't their content. Also I have seen a lot of possible insulting images of George Bush and never a complaint. Maybe in this case we are seeing racism rearing its ugly head?? And I mean that if it wasn't an image of a black person being ridiculed, there would not have been an outcry!!!??

    November 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  54. Jessica*

    I think this is so dumb. Google should not apologize – unless the big guy there photoshopped the picture himself! I've seen pictures of George Bush resembling a monkey 900 different times all over the internet and no one cared – but now it's one picture of the President's wife (Not even the president himself!!) and people are crying about it? Why?? Google shouldn't remove anything AND they shouldn't have to apologize for something someone else did.

    December 2, 2009 at 8:10 am | Reply

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