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Harvard Professor Suggests Google Ads Discriminate Against Black People

By Beth Germano, WBZ-TV
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WBZ-TV's Beth Germano Beth Germano
Emmy award-winning Beth Germano is a general assignment reporter fo...
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CAMBRIDGE (CBS) – When Harvard University computer scientist LaTanya Sweeney Googled her name she was surprised at what she found. A Google ad questioning whether she had an arrest record. “I almost fell out of my chair! I’ve never been arrested, what’s going on here?“

She’s a law-abiding citizen, but the Google ad from a firm called Instant Checkmate suggested she had a criminal record. “If they sell it don’t they know who they have arrest records for?”

She dug deeper with over 2,100 names, most coming from a study on birth records which identified names given to one race more than another. The name Latisha Smith triggered an ad to check if she had an arrest record as well. The common denominator was the so-called sounding black names. They were 25 percent more likely to yield an ad for a criminal records search.

AdWords is Google’s profitable service in which businesses pay to have their ads appear in the results when users search particular keywords or phrases. She found names like Ebony, Deshawn and Tamika were more likely to offer a search for criminal backgrounds than names like Jill or Ann which turned up neutral.

“To have an ad suggestive of an arrest for one group of people over another puts them at a disadvantage,” said Sweeney.

Harvard student and football player Assante Gibson has seen it with his own name. “Nobody who has a clean slate wants their name affiliated with arrests, period,” he said.

LaTanya Sweeney worries about an online perception being created in the name of making money.

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