What is, at this moment, the most important image in the world? Arguably, and sadly, it is the cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban that appeared originally in a Danish newspaper last fall and has been reprinted, over the last few days, in newspapers in France, Norway, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. It’s curious that if you do an image search on “danish cartoon” or “Mohammad cartoon” on Google right now the controversial cartoon appears among the first results, but if you do the same search at Yahoo or MSN it’s nowhere to be seen.
I assume this just shows that Google has the superior image search engine, and not that Yahoo and MSN are filtering out an image that Muslims consider blasphemous. But what if Yahoo and MSN were filtering out the cartoon? Would they necessarily be doing the wrong thing? And is Google necessarily doing the right thing by displaying the cartoon? I know what I personally believe. I believe it would be wrong to filter out the image. I would be appalled, and angered, if it were being suppressed.
But it doesn’t cost me anything to be righteous.
What if I were to leave my beliefs about freedom of speech and freedom of the press aside and look at the question from the perspective of a shareholder or a manager or an employee of a search company? I would have to consider the fact that simply distributing an image of Mohammad might well be considered blasphemous by many people around the world – including many customers and potential customers – and that their perception of my company might be damaged as a result. I’d have to consider the fact that Western retail chains have removed Danish goods from their stores in Islamic countries: Was that wrong or right? And I’d certainly have to think hard about the arson attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria today, and the many other threats of violent retaliation. Should the company ignore them and hope for the best? Or should it worry? Is my company putting itself at risk? Would the risk – to the company’s reputation, among other things – be greater if it started to censor politically sensitive information?
An editorial in today’s Financial Times chides Google for speaking of its commerical enterprise in moralistic terms. The paper says that Google’s “mission statement – ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – sounds straightforward. But Google needs to think more carefully about how it interprets its mission, and be more honest about its commercial self-interest.” In a world in which the mere existence of a political cartoon can stir violence and sow fear, the noble goal of making information accessible is also a risky and even a dangerous goal. Newspapers have always known that, and search engines are learning it.