Google has suffered a blow to its reputation as a champion of liberalism after it inadvertently helped a racist picture of Michelle Obama become one of the most viewed images on the internet.
The search engine apologised for providing an "upsetting experience" to users of Google Images after searches for America's First Lady brought up a shot in which Mrs Obama's face had been crudely altered to look like that of a monkey.
The offensive picture had initially been posted last October on an obscure blog called Hot Girls. For months, it went largely ignored. But after a handful of angry rival bloggers linked their site to the image, it began slowly creeping up Google's rankings.
On Tuesday, it suddenly hit number one and attracted media attention. Faced with a snowballing PR problem, which pitted its commitment to free speech against the leftish values it supposedly espouses, Google was forced to debate whether it should "de-list" the image.
The firm eventually decided not to, arguing that freedom of speech is also the freedom to offend. Instead, it carried a notice on its search page explaining that sites it links to "do not necessarily reflect" the company's views.
"It's offensive to many people," admitted the California-based company's spokesman Scott Rubin. "But that alone is not a reason to remove it from our search index. We have, in general, a bias toward free speech."
Cynics noted that Google was not so high-minded when it entered the lucrative Chinese market, agreeing to a government demand to block local access to the sites of foreign media organisations, and severely restricting searches for words like "democracy" or images of the Tiananmen Square massacre
Google's discomfort was eased somewhat yesterday when the offending image of Mrs Obama was removed from the Hot Girls site, and as a result finally disappeared from Google search results.
In its place, on the blog, was a garbled apology, apparently translated from Chinese, saying: "Do not the subject of race and politics make the discussion too radical and sincere hope that the world is very peaceful [sic]."
The affair has nonetheless highlighted the tricky position Google increasingly finds itself in when its searches, which scour through databases according to complex algorithms without human intervention, give prominence to images or messages that are widely seen as offensive.
The problem is a growing one. In an unrelated incident in Milan, Italian prosecutors yesterday called for Google executives to be jailed for enabling a video in which four youths from the city of Turin taunt and humiliate a young man suffering from Down's Syndrome to be posted on a Google-owned Italian website.
The chief prosecutor in the case, Alfredo Robledo, told the court: "The protection of fundamental rights cannot be trampled merely on the basis of the rights of a company."