Research conducted by three computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute discovered that Google’s AdSense platform is capable of discriminating against women looking for employment and targeting consumers based on their health information.
Using an automated tool they built called AdFisher, the research team utilized more than 17,000 simulated user profiles across 21 experiments to analyze how different user traits defined by Google’s Ad Settings would impact which ads were served. In one experiment, Google predominantly showed ads for executive-level positions to accounts identified as male. Female accounts, on the other hand, were more likely to be served job postings from an auto parts dealer, Goodwill, and a generic job-hunting service.
In another experiment, ads for drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers were served to accounts which previously browsed websites about substance abuse. Similarly, accounts that visited websites regarding physical disabilities were shown ads for accessibility products.
“We cannot claim that Google has violated its policies,” the team wrote in the paper. “In fact, we consider it more likely that Google has lost control over its massive, automated advertising system.”
Who—or What’s—to Blame?
While the study’s findings would suggest Google is enabling discrimination, the situation is much more complicated.
Currently, Google allows advertisers to target their ads based on gender. That means it’s possible for an advertiser promoting high-paying job listings to directly target men. However, Google’s algorithm may have also determined that men are more relevant for the position and made the decision on its own. And then there’s the possibility that user behavior taught Google to serve ads in this manner. It’s impossible to know if one party here is to blame or if it’s a combination of account targeting from all sources at play.