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February 6, 2013

Google Ads Reveal Bias Against African-Americans, Harvard University Study Reveals

'Arrest' Appears With Greater Frequency in Ads Featuring 'Black' Names

The delivery of Google ads has significant racial bias, according to a study by a Harvard University professor.

Professor Latanya Sweeney says names that are more often associated with African-American people are more apt to generate ads linked to criminal activity.

When searching on sites that host Google ads, “black identifying” first names are 25 percent more likely to generate ads for Instant Checkmate, a firm that offers criminal background checks, the study revealed.

“There is less than a 0.1 per cent probability that these data can be explained by chance,” the research paper reads. “Why is this discrimination occurring? Is this Instant Checkmate, Google, or society’s fault?”

Sweeney, who is black, discovered the racial bias issue when a Google search of her name resulted in an Instant Checkmate ad, dubbed: Latanya Sweeney Arrested?

When Sweeney entered “white” names such as Kristen Lindquist or Jill Foley, the Google ad results were more generic and the Instant Checkmate ad simply read: “Located… information found on Jill Foley.”

Google, in a statement to the BBC, said it does not conduct racial profiling.

“We also have an ‘anti’ and violence policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organisation, person or group of people,” the search engine giant said in the statement, adding companies placing ads with Google can specify the keywords they want to target.

“It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.”

Sweeney studied 2,184 different first names, some “black” and some “white.”

“A greater percentage of Instant Checkmate ads having the word ‘arrest’ in ad text appeared for black-identifying first names than for white-identifying first names within professional and netizen subsets,” the paper reads. “Of the 2,184 names in the study, 599, harvested using professional designations, had Instant Checkmate ads on Reuters with 217 having black associated names, 136 (63 percent) of which received ads with the word “arrest” in ad text compared to only 178 (47 percent) of 382 white associated names.”

The names Darnell, Jermaine and DeShawn, for instance, had the highest percentages of ads with “arrest” appearing in the text. All, of course, are names typically associated with black men. Ads for the names Jill and Emma, names associated with white women, however, had the lowest percentage of “arrest” appearing in associated ads.

Sweeney said the study has raised more questions than answers, adding the ad placement bias could be the result of various factors. The bias could also lie with the individual advertiser or society in general.

Sweeny said while the issue warrants further study to determine its root cause, “the basic message presented in this writing does not change. There is discrimination in delivery of these ads.”