Google/MITLatanya Sweeney seems to think she’s cracked an interesting facet of Google’s search algorithms. Sweeney, a MIT researcher, discovered that searching for “black sounding” names are  up to 25 percent more likely to be served with an arrest-related ad.  “There is discrimination in delivery of these ads,” she concludes.

From The Physics arXiv Blog:

Sweeney’s interest is in the ads that appear alongside these results. When she entered her name in Google an ad appeared with the wording: “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested? 1) Enter name and state 2) Access full background. Checks instantly. www.instantcheckmate.com” This is suggestive wording. It suggests that Latanya Sweeney has a criminal record the details of which can be accessed by clicking on the ad. But after hitting the link and paying the necessary subscription fee, Sweeney says she found no record of arrest. What’s interesting about this is that Sweeney’s first name is also suggestive–that she is black. The question Sweeney asks is whether a similar search with a name suggestive of a white racial profile also serves up ads mentioning arrest records. The answer is a powerful wake up call. Sweeney says she has evidence that black identifying names are up to 25 per cent more likely to be served with an arrest-related ad.  “There is discrimination in delivery of these ads,” she concludes. Sweeney gathered this evidence by collecting over 2000 names that were suggestive of race. For example, first names such as Trevon, Lakisha and Darnell suggest the owner is black while names like Laurie, Brendan and Katie suggest the owner is white. She then entered these plus surnames into Google.com and Reuters.com and examined the ads they returned. 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 the word “arrest” (60 per cent versus 48 per cent).  All came from www.instantcheckmate.com.

Now is this an issue with Google, or an issue with the adwords companies purchase?  Typically when a person or company starts an adword campaign, you add certain keywords to your account. Those keywords can be anything that can possibly direct a Google search to your company.

For example, lets say you’re starting a natural hair salon, we’ll call it “Happy 2B Nappy.” If you were  savvy business person, you’d add as many keywords to your account that have to do with all things natural hair. Those keywords, when searched by someone on Google, have a higher chance of leading people to your site.  Larger sized companies, such as this Instant Checkmate, would more than likely add thousands of keywords, because of their larger budgets. If I had to take a wise guess, this company has probably added tons of “black sounding” names, which are probably the names already in their database.  When Sweeney contacted the attorney and founders of Instant Checkmate on December 21, 2012, the company’s representatives asserted that Instant Checkmate gave the same ad text to Google for groups of last names (not first names).

Sweeney thinks the keywords bought by companies could be the issue, but is there another explanation. According to the The Physics arXiv Blog, there might be:

A more insidious explanation is that society as a whole is to blame. If Google’s Adsense service learns which ad combinations are more effective, it would first serve the arrest-related ads to all names at random. But this would change if it were to discover that click-throughs are more likely when these ads are served against a black-identifying name. In other words, the results merely reflect the discriminatory pattern of clicks from ordinary people.

In response to arXiv’s blog post, Google released this statement:

“AdWords does not conduct any 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. It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.”

Sweeney’s full report is available here.

  • The Other Jess

    well, i had one friend who worked on algorithms in their New York offices, but she was one of extremely few Black faces there.

  • anon

    That’s a good question. But, the work is outsourced.

  • Fancypants

    @ Kam,

    Apparently they changed it because the first thing that popped up a few weeks ago was “Why do black people”

  • Common Sense

    Don’t use Google and get off of Facebook!