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.
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.