A UK journalist claims that he’s replicated US writer Nathan Newman’s informal “experiment” suggesting that Google conducts “racial profiling” in the AdWords it shows to Gmail users. The UK journalist says his investigation reproduced “similarly disturbing results” comparable to the US test.
Newman’s earlier test, conducted roughly a year ago, involved the use of nine different names, which were stand-ins for race and ethnicity. The different names were paired with the same subject lines to produce different ad units in many instances. For example the subject line “education” produced the following results according to Newman:
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.
At the time Google claimed the exercise was methodologically flawed and therefore the conclusions were invalid. Newman himself qualified his findings: “Given a relatively small sample size, the results cannot be treated as definitive but they do highlight where racial profiling may be occurring and raise questions that policymakers should be asking of search engine operators like Google.”
The UK writer, Willard Foxton, reported he found something quite similar in his test:
The results were stark, and similar to the original experiment – for example, an email sent by “Robert Howe” saying “Need Cash” gets foreign exchange solutions for business advertised to him; the same email sent by “Segun Akinkube” gets offered Payday Loans. Neither of the ads repeated in each other’s preferences; Segun & Robert got completely different ads served to them, when all other factors were the same.
Foxton says even less about his “methodology” than Newman and doesn’t indicate, beyond the single mention, how many instances of “racial profiling” he found.
Google steadfastly denies any racial profiling in the ads it shows to users. Before any real conclusions can be drawn, however, someone needs to do a much larger and more rigorous study to see if “ethnic” names do yield stereotypical ads in Gmail in any sort of systematic way.