Google a 'Black' Name, Get an Arrest Ad?

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Pop a name into Google and you're likely to end up with corresponding advertisements alongside your results. Wild guess which types of names are more likely to yield arrest-related ads suggesting that the person searched for has a record.


You got it — according to a Harvard University paper reported in MIT Technology Review on Monday, "black-identified" names lead to such potentially misleading and embarrassing results 25 percent more often than those that are "white-identified." Here's why researcher Latanya Sweney says "there is discrimination in delivery of these ads," and what she suggests might be done to fix it:

Many people will have experience Googling friends, colleagues and relatives to find out about their online presence — the websites on which they appear, their pictures, hobbies and so on.

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."

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 …

Clearly Sweeney has discovered a serious problem here given the impact online presence can have an individual's employment prospects.

Whatever the cause, Sweeney says technology may offer some kind of solution. If the algorithms behind Adsense can reason about maximising revenues, she says they ought to be able to reason about the legal and social consequences of certain patters of click-throughs.

Read more at the MIT Technology Review.