Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery

Latanya Sweeney

Harvard University

January 28, 2013

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 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. 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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 36

Keywords: online advertising, public records, racial discrimination, data privacy, information retrieval, computers and society, search engine marketing

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Date posted: January 29, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Sweeney, Latanya, Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery (January 28, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2208240 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2208240

Contact Information

Latanya Sweeney (Contact Author)
Harvard University ( email )
1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
HOME PAGE: http://latanyasweeney.org
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