Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney has put together a report saying that Google is racially discriminating with some of its ads. Google, of course, says this is not the case.
Still, it's an interesting, if incomplete study. Here's the abstract:
A Google search for a person's name, such as "Trevon Jones", may yield a personalized ad for public records about Trevon that may be neutral, such as "Looking for Trevon Jones? ..." or may be suggestive of an arrest record, such as "Trevon Jones, Arrested?...". This writing investigates the delivery of these kinds of ads by Google AdSense using a sample of racially associated names and finds statistically significant discrimination in ad delivery based on searches of 2184 racially associated personal names across two websites. First names, previously identified by others as being assigned at birth to more black or white babies, are found predictive of race (88% black, 96% white), and those assigned primarily to black babies, such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine, generated ads suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86% of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other, while those assigned at birth primarily to whites, such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma, generated more neutral copy: the word "arrest" appeared in 23 to 29 percent of name searches on one site and 0 to 60 percent on the other.
On the more ad trafficked website, a black-identifying name was 25% more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record. A few names did not follow these patterns: Dustin, a name predominantly given to white babies, generated an ad suggestive of arrest 81 and 100 percent of the time. All Ads return results for actual individuals and ads appear regardless of whether the name has an arrest record in the company's database. Notwithstanding these findings, the company maintains Google received the same ad text for groups of last names (not first names), raising questions as to whether Google's advertising technology exposes racial bias in society and how ad and search technology can develop to assure racial fairness
It goes pretty in depth. You can read the full report here (pdf).
The Huffington Post picked up the story, and shares a statement from a Google spokesperson:
“AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “We also have an ‘anti’ and violence 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.”
Sweeney acknowledges in the report that the study ultimately raises more questions than it answers, and says that the paper is just a start, and that more research is needed. However, after all of her research, she concludes the paper saying, "There is discrimination in delivery of these ads."