Google AdSense is more likely to deliver ads suggesting an arrest record in response to search queries including names that predominantly belong to black people, according to a study conducted by Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab.
The researchers used Google to search 2,184 racially associated names — such as Latanya, which generally refers to a black woman, and Emma, which generally refers to a white woman.
The names often generated ads sponsored by InstantCheckmate.com. In response to searches for black names, InstantCheckmate returned mentions of arrest, such as “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?,” more than 80 percent of the time. (Latanya Sweeney is the name of the study’s main author.)
The ads appeared regardless of whether InstantCheckmate.com, which provides criminal background checks, had evidence of any arrests linked to the person of that name. Searches for white names only rarely turned up the ads.
The study was not able to determine whether InstantCheckmate had actively linked ad copy including the word “arrest” to black names — suggesting racism at the company — or whether the ads appeared on searches of black names because previous users conducting those searches were more likely to click on the ads than users searching for white names — suggesting racism among users.
Google AdSense is the largest provider of dynamic ad copy, or copy targeted to the particular search query. It sponsors such ads on millions of websites, according to the study.