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Google Searches For “Black” Names Return Ads For Arrest Records More Often

Submitted by on February 6, 2013 – 10:49 amOne Comment

A Harvard researcher has discovered an unfortunate trend in Google searches, leading some to ask if an algorithm can be unintentionally racist. Dr. Latanya Sweeney, professor of Technology and Government, found that Google searches for names typically given more to black children were 25% more likely to return ads for arrest record searches than their white counterparts.

The study used searches on Google, and also Reuters.com, which also uses Google ads. The names were taken from previous academic studies that had defined the racially-predictive nomenclature. The abstract states that “names such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine generated ads suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 percent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other.” Meanwhile, names “such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma” returned such ads in just “23 to 29 percent of name searches on one site and 0 to 60 percent on the other.”

According to the BBC, Google responded to the research, saying it “does not conduct any racial profiling,” and that “individual advertisers” are responsible for the keywords they purchase- including names. Even Dr. Sweeney acknowledges that Google’s algorithm could simply reflect actual trends, as it “exposes racial bias in society” that is already present.

But regardless of the exact cause, Dr. Sweeney seemed particularly concerned that false accusations of arrest records prompted by these ads could cause material damage to unassuming people, such as job applicants. And Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch lays out the case for how such results can reinforce stereotypes with damning results.

What do you think?


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