Study Finds Google Uses Racial Profiling to Deliver Ads

Study finds your Google and Gmail online experience can change based on your race.

By Jorge Rivas Sep 21, 2011

Racial profiling is likely a reality in how and what online advertising you see, a preliminary investigation conducted by Tech-Progress’ Nathan Newman has found. The reality is that "people do not live in the same online world, even when they use the same terms," the study found.

Google generates the large majority of their revenue by offering advertisers what they call "highly relevant advertising" through programs like Google AdWords and Adsense. AdWords is supposed to deliver relevant ads to users by analyzing what they’ve searched or read on the Internet. But Newman’s study has found the results can vary greatly according to the digital profile Google creates for you based on names, surnames, class and geographical location.

An example of how this works is, say, a user named Connor Erickson is using Google’s Gmail to write an email with the subject "Arrested: need lawyer" and sees relevant ads for criminal and fraud attorneys. But when a user named DeShawn Washington creates the same email he only sees ads for attorneys specializing in DUI cases.

Newman discusses how the digital profile can affect different groups disproportionately via Huffington Post:

There is a large body of research showing that employers, financial lenders, car salesmen and other merchants continue to charge black and Hispanic customers more for the same services when they can identify them. The classic test for showing this phenomenon has been to pair white and black buyers or applicants for the same product or job and see whether the "testers" were treated the same. The Urban Institute found non-white homeowners received less favorable financial terms from mortgage lending institutions. Another study submitted nearly identical resumes to help-wanted ads, finding that "white sounding" names were 50 percent more likely than "black sounding" names to get an interview.

The question is how and whether ads are being served up to users in similarly racialized ways in online advertising. The reality is that Google and advertisers have a whole battery of data-mining tools to profile users precisely based on both the context of their search terms and their long-term online behavior, so the ability to profile is clearly there.

As a proxy for race, Newman’s experiment used nine names and then associated them each with a number of simple terms.

The three "white" names used were Connor Ericson, Jake Yoder, and Molly Johnson. The three Latino names used were Diego Garcia, Juan Martinez and Maria Munoz. The three black names used were Malik Hakim, DeShawn Washington and Imani Jackson. (He explains his methodology.)

Check out some of the findings below:

Buying Cars: An example of significant difference in results can be seen when names were associated with the term "Buying Car." All three white names yielded car buying sites of various kinds, whether from GMC or Toyota or a comparison shopping site. For example with the name "Jake Yoder":

Conversely, all three of the African-American names yielded at least one ad related to bad credit card loans and included other ads related to non-new car purchases, such as auto insurance or purchasing "car lifts" for home repairs. For example with the name "Malik Hakim":

Education: With a simple subject line relating a name to the word "education," the results yielded far more emphasis on post-BA education ads for white names, and B.A. or non-college education opportunities for the non-white names. For example, two white names were the only names to yield ads for Ph.D. programs — and the third yielded two ads for masters programs. For example, "Molly Johnson" yielded a B.A. program ad and a Ph.D. program ad.

For "Diego Garcia," the education term only yielded one college program and it was for the College of the Military aimed at on-line education for active military:

AdWords gives advertisers access to over 80% of internet users in the United States, according to Google

Gmail users interested in only having Gmail deliver ads based on individual emails and not based on their complete history of email exchanges can update their settings by visiting "Mail Settings."

Read more about Newman’s study on the Huffington Post.