Are Google searches racist?

Posted by Emma Woollacott

'Black-sounding' names are more likely to trigger ads associated with criminality, says a Harvard professor, in what could be Google's racism - or everybody else's.

She looked at the ads served across two websites - Google itself, and the search function of Reuters.com, which also displays Google's ads. And, she found, names used generally by black people were far more likely to offer links to, for example, serves for background criminal checks.

"Those [names] assigned primarily to black babies, 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, 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," she writes.

"On the more ad trafficked website, a black-identifying name was  25 percent more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record."

But this doesn't neccessarily mean that Google - which has declared categorically that it doesn't conduct any racial profiling - is racist. Instead, as Sweeney acknowledges, it may be us. Ads are served in part through algorithms based on the behavior of large numbers of users - and the phenomenon may simply reflect that.

The findings, she says, raise  "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".