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Google allowed employers and landlords to discriminate against non-binary people

Josh Milton February 17, 2021
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A man walks past the logo of Google

A man walks past the logo of Google. (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Google’s advertising system has inadvertently allowed employers and landlords to discriminate against trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, a new report has revealed.

The tech giant’s ads are everywhere – whether on YouTube, search result pages or within websites – with companies able to use user data to target or exclude users.

But in doing do, according to The Markup, Google inadvertently created a loophole that enabled companies, landlords and credit providers to stop their ads from being displayed to users who identified outside of male and female gender options, including non-binary and gender non-conforming users.

If a person has not specified their gender to Google as either “male” or “female”, the search engine lists them as being of an “unknown gender” to advertisers.

While companies cannot bar ads concerning jobs, housing or financial services from being presented to “male” and “female” users, they could direct Google to not show them to those marked “unknown gender”.

Google has since vowed to clamp down on the practise by revising its advertisement policies to better protect trans and non-binary users.

“We will be implementing an update to our policy and enforcement in the coming weeks to restrict advertisers from targeting or excluding users on the basis of the ‘gender unknown’ category,” Elijah Lawal, a spokesperson for Google, said.

Dozens of companies don’t show ads to ‘unknown gender’ users, says Google.

Google allows advertisers to target certain users with personalised ads by using collected user data. This can include someone’s gender, age, household income and parental status.

To comply with US federal anti-discrimination laws, Google prohibits advertisers from using this data to exclude people from key services and opportunities.

How, The Markup found that two YouTube ads, for jobs at FedEx and Dewey Pest Control, excluded so-called “unknown gender” users.

Data indicated that ads were targeted by gender, but did not reveal which gender was targeted or suggest a reason as to why. Approximately 100 more companies did the same, across job, housing and credit adverts.

FedEx declined to comment “on our specific marketing or recruiting processes” in a statement to the outlet.

When someone signs up for Google, they are given four options of how to specify their gender: “male”, “female”, “rather not say” or a custom option.

The “unknown gender” tag, Lawal said, “is intended to refer to individuals where we have been unable to determine or infer the user’s gender and is not intended to allow for targeting or exclusion of users based on gender identity.”

Existing Google policies forbid discrimination against trans people for all adverts, however Lawal acknowledged that the “unknown gender” marker had created a loophole.

Users can see how they are categorised for ads on their ad settings page, which includes the option to switch off ad personalisation altogether.

PinkNews contacted Dewey Pest Control for comment.

Related topics: advertisement, Google, non-binary, technology, Trans, US

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