Racist Google ads? New study links names to negative ads.

A Harvard University professor's new study finds that Google ads might have a racial bias. What does it mean for Google users?

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Vanity searches, we all do them. You open up Google Search, type in your name, and see what pops up. The typical results include Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter links. Advertisements, however, change from person to person and a new Harvard study provides a disturbing look at why that might be.

Latanya Sweeney, a professor of government at Harvard University, conducted a study on Google and discovered that searches for “black sounding” names were 25 percent more likely to yield advertisements for criminal records searches, even if the person has no such record. 

According to the Boston Globe, Sweeney stumbled onto the topic after a colleague showed her what appeared when Ms. Sweeney’s name was searched. The resulting advertisements for an arrest record shocked the professor, who has never been arrested.

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The ads also inspired the computer scientist and specialist in data privacy to dig deeper into the matter. By comparing names like, “Trevon, Lakisha, and Darnell” to “Laurie, Brandon, and Katie,” Sweeney began to compile her data. More than 2,100 names later, she uncovered troubling news.

“Most names generated ads for public records. However, black-identifying names turned out to be much more likely than white-identifying names to generate ads that including [sic] the word 'arrest' (60 per cent versus 48 per cent). All came from www.instantcheckmate.com," says the study, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Sweeney concluded that there was a less than 1 percent chance that this was all by accident.

"There is discrimination in the delivery of these ads," Sweeney told BBC News. “Alongside news stories about high school athletes and children can be ads bearing the child's name and suggesting arrest. This seems concerning on many levels.”

The ads show up on Google’s pages and other websites, such as Reuters, which allow ads from Google to appear next to search results.

“You could be in competition for an award, a scholarship, a new job,” Sweeney tells the Boston Globe. “You could be in a position of trust, like a professor, a judge. Having ads that show up suggestive of arrest, may actually discount your ability to function.”

Google has denied the racism claims. The company issued a statement about AdWords, the service that allows businesses to pay in order to have their ads appear with results when certain keywords are searched.

“We also have an 'anti' and violence policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organization, person or group of people," says Google, according to BBC News. “It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads."

This controversy comes just after Australian courts ruled that Google is not responsible for the messages placed by advertisers. 

Sweeney has yet to specifically point out exactly what makes these ads appear. The BBC reported that she needs further information about Google’s AdSense before going forward.

One possible reason, that was suggested, might be user behavior.

Google’s algorithms may be picking up on society’s own prejudices since the ads that appear most often are the ones that are frequently clicked on.

The Boston Globe spoke with Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com, who said that this might be an isolated incident or perhaps caused by black users clicking the ads as much as white users.

The Globe said that both Sweeny and Mr. Sullivan agree that no matter what the cause, displaying suggestive negative information is a real, online problem.

Sweeney’s study can be viewed online at the Social Science Research Network and at arXiv.org.

For more tech news follow Aimee on Twitter@aimee_ortiz

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