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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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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.

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“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, 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

For more tech news follow Aimee on Twitter@aimee_ortiz


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