Google Advertising Equality

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Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley published a paper earlier this year. The results of the study, originally reported by MIT Technology Review, suggest that the way Google serves ads may be discriminatory. Amongst other findings, the authors concluded that male users were more likely to see advertisements for high paying executive jobs than female users. So far Google’s been silent on the issue but it got me wondering, is Google advertising discriminatory? Google is, as with their search algorithm, aloof when it comes to how ads are served on Google’s Display Ad Network. However we know which ads we see is determined by a variety of factors. The advertiser, the publisher and Google, as well as the end user, all influence which ads are displayed and to whom on the Google Display Network.

When bidding for ad space advertisers can select their preferred publishers, target customer demographics and even consumer interests. Publishers also have settings for what types of ads are displayed on their websites. From a user's perspective there is some control over what advertisements will be seen.

Google takes into account browsing behaviour to create a profile which can be manually adjusted via Ad Settings with the intention of increasing the relevance of advertising to end users. Google then marries the interests of the advertiser, publisher and user to maximise chances of the user clicking through on the display ad.

The Carnegie Mellon/UC Berkeley study had two key findings in the study. Firstly, changing Ad Settings did change the advertisements displayed but not all factors influencing this were visible in the settings. The ads displayed could also change in the absence of changes to Ad Settings. The advertising content a user sees is clearly not entirely within their control.

The second finding is more worrying in light of the first one. Researchers found that certain behaviours could affect the advertising shown in a way that encourages discrimination. After users visited websites related to gambling or drugs, they were more likely to see ads related to those behaviours, such as for a rehabilitation centre. Further changes to Ad Settings did not affect whether ads for a rehabilitation centre were shown.

The study also found evidence of gender discrimination. Changing Ad Settings between ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ for example could influence which display ads were shown. Users marked ‘Male’ were more likely to see ads for higher paying executive jobs than users marked ‘Female’ even if other browsing behaviours were the same.

The discrimination pinpointed could be a result of advertiser choices and targeting. It could also be a result of the way Google’s algorithm displays advertising. If the observed results are choices of the advertiser, then the issue is simply one of enforcement. Rules and regulations already exist to prevent this type of prejudice. But if the algorithm is the influencer could/should Google correct for biases against advertising equality?