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Study: Google ad server discriminates against women [updated]

Source: MIT Technology Review

Carnegie Mellon University researchers claim that Google’s targeted ad algorithm discriminates against women, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Obama Administration have raised questions about big data and how it could lead to “discrimination by algorithm,” but so far, there’s not been a lot of evidence.

Researchers discovered that male job seekers searching news sites were more likely to be shown ads for high-paying executive jobs than females with the same qualifications.

“I think our findings suggest that there are parts of the ad ecosystem where kinds of discrimination are beginning to emerge and there is a lack of transparency,” says Datta. “This is concerning from a societal standpoint.” Ad systems like Google’s influence the information people are exposed to and potentially even the decisions they make, so understanding how those systems use data about us is important, he says.

The study also claims that a Google tool called ads settings which “lets you view and edit the interests the company has inferred for you, does not always reflect potentially sensitive information being used to target you. Browsing sites aimed at people with substance abuse problems, for example, triggered a rash of ads for rehab programs, but there was no change to Google’s transparency page,” noted the MIT Technology Review.

What exactly caused those specific patterns is unclear, because Google’s ad-serving system is very complex. Google uses its data to target ads, but ad buyers can make some decisions about demographics of interest and can also use their own data sources on people’s online activity to do additional targeting for certain kinds of ads. Nor do the examples breach any specific privacy rules—although Google policy forbids targeting on the basis of “health conditions.” Still, says Anupam Datta, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who helped develop AdFisher, they show the need for tools that uncover how online ad companies differentiate between people.

Demographic targeting is not unusual in the ad business, which is why ads targeting men populate ESPN or ads targeting women are more frequent in Lifetime.

“Advertisers can choose to target the audience they want to reach, and we have policies that guide the type of interest-based ads that are allowed,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “We provide transparency to users with ‘Why This Ad’ notices and Ad Settings, as well as the ability to opt out of interest-based ads.” The Google spokesperson pointed to the Google’s policy for advertising.