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Harvard professor says 'black' names in Google searches more likely to offer arrest ads

Posted by David Stewart  February 5, 2013 06:31 PM

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Is Google biasing the ads it serves up based on whether a name sounds "black"?

That's the conclusion of a paper by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, who wrote in her paper that searches on names that may be identified as black brought up ads for criminal background searches.

"Have you ever been arrested? Imagine the question not appearing in the solitude of your thoughts as you read this paper, but appearing explicitly whenever someone queries your name in a search engine," Sweeney wrote in the beginning of her paper, " Discrimination in online activity."

As reported in MIT Technology Review, Sweeney's search on her own name in Google prompted her to think more about how the search engine giant's ad delivery:

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”

Sweeney did searches for more than 2,000 names that were suggestive of race -- for example, "DeShawn, Darnelle, and Jermaine" for "black" names and "Geoffrey, Jill, and Emma" for "white" names.

Searches on the black identifying names served up ads with the word "arrest" 60 percent of the time, compared with 48 percent of the time for white identifying names, Sweeney found.

What do you make of Sweeney's research? Do you agree that Google is using race to determine which ads accompany searches on names?


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