Racist: Google Searches for 'Black Names' Result in Criminal Records Advertisements

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When Harvard Professor Latanya Sweeney typed her name into Google, this was the result that she got back: “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested? 1) Enter name and state 2) Access full background."

The wording of this search result implies that Sweeney has 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. This is the beginning of her paper on the subject:

“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


By way of the Media Relations Department at Instant Checkmate, Inc.:

As a point of fact, Instant Checkmate would like to state unequivocally that it has never engaged in racial profiling in Google AdWords.

We have absolutely no technology in place to even connect a name with a race and have never made any attempt to do so.

The very idea is contrary to our company's most deeply held principles and values.