Is Google Search Racist? One Harvard Professor Thinks So.

Is this a coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.


Is Google search engines racist?  According to one Harvard professor that is definitely a distinct possibility.

When Latanya Sweeney, a professor at Harvard, typed her name into Google, she got back this result: “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested? 1) Enter name and state 2) Access full background.”

The wording of this search result implies that Sweeney may have been arrested and that anyone who wants to see what crimes she has committed can access that information instantly. Sweeney, who has not been arrested, proceeded with the background check and paid to check her records, which came back clean.

The problem, Sweeney argues, is that since she has a first name that suggests she is black, search engines are much more likely to return an ad mentioning arrest records when someone looks her up online.

She states in a paper arguing that racial discrimination plagues online ad delivery:

“Have you ever been arrested? Imagine the question not appearing in the solitude of your thoughts as you read this paper, but appearing explicitly whenever someone queries your name in a search engine.”

Sweeney conducted her research by gathering more than 2,000 names that were suggestive of race. She used names like Darnell, Lakisha and Trevon to represent “black” names and names like Laurie, Katie and Brendan to represent “white” names. Based on her findings, Sweeney says that people who search for someone who has a “black” name are 25 percent more likely to get back an arrest-related ad. “There is discrimination in the delivery of these ads,” she concludes.

In response to a blog post detailing Sweeney’s research and her findings that was updated on February 4th, a Google spokesperson sent the following comment:

“AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling. We also have an “anti” and violence policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organisation, person or group of people. It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.”

Source: MIT Technology Review

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