Google Ad Delivery Can Show 'Racial Bias,' Says Harvard Study

Ads more likely to link black-identifying names to criminal records, study says.

ByABC News
February 6, 2013, 9:53 AM

Feb. 6, 2013— -- A Google search for a "racially associated name" is more likely to trigger advertisements suggesting the person has a criminal background, according to a study by a Harvard professor.

Latanya Sweeney, a professor of government and technology at Harvard University and a specialist in online privacy, found that queries for a "black identifying" name were more likely to trigger an advertisement suggesting an arrest record than names traditionally given to white babies.

The study involved searches for 2,184 racially associated names as determined by prior workplace discrimination studies. Sweeney focused her analysis on and a highly trafficked news website that displays the widely used Google AdWords advertisements.

Names often given to black babies, such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine, generated ads suggesting an arrest record in 81 to 86 percent of the searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other, Sweeney wrote.

By comparison, names "predominantly given to white babies," such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma, tended to trigger ads with more neutral copy, such as "Looking for Emma Jones?"

Of the searches involving the primarily white names, advertisements containing the word "arrest" appeared in 23 to 29 percent of the searches on one site and a range of 0 to 60 percent on the other, the study said.

Sweeney wrote that the statistical difference could have an impact on job seekers. However, she said more work would need to be done in order to determine whether it is Google's algorithm, advertisers, or an inherent bias in society that explains her findings.

"There is discrimination in delivery of these ads," Sweeney concluded, though she said the study also "raises more questions than it answers."

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Google AdWords determine which advertisements appear, based on keywords, advertiser bids and user behavior.

In a statement, Google said, "AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling. We also have a policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organization, person or group of people. It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads."