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Google unwittingly allowed advertisers to discriminate against nonbinary people

The company says it's working quickly to address the oversight.
Google and YouTube employees march in the San Francisco Gay Pride Festival in California June 29, 2014. Prominent Silicon Valley technology companies flew the flag for gay rights on Sunday as they sought to boost morale among employees and reflect a corporate culture of diversity.    REUTERS/Noah Berger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)
Noah Berger / reuters
Igor Bonifacic
Igor Bonifacic|@igorbonifacic|February 11, 2021 2:55 PM

An investigation by The Markup has found that Google inadvertently allowed advertisers to discriminate against nonbinary and some transgender people. An oversight on the company’s ads dashboard allowed employers and landlords to prevent people of “unknown gender” — that is individuals who don’t identify as either male or female — from seeing their advertisements. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender or race when it comes to ads related to employment and housing.    

The company said it would fix the oversight after The Markup shared its findings. “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,” Google spokesperson Elijah Lawal told the publication. 

The Markup found two job ads that had excluded those of “unknown gender” from seeing them. One came from FedEx while another was posted by a pest control chain in California. Neither company commented on their respective ads. According to Google, an internal audit “identified approximately 100 advertisers out of many thousands” that had done the same with their housing, credit or job ads. 

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When it comes to all ads, not just those in the housing and jobs categories, the company’s policies prohibit advertisers from excluding people on the basis of a nonconforming gender identity. However, its demographics dashboard, which allows advertisers to target their advertisements at individuals based on their gender, age, parental status and household income, allowed users to deselect the “unknown gender” option in spite of its policies. “This is why we are working swiftly to implement a change,” Lawal said.

Whether the advertisers that disabled the unknown gender checkbox did so purposefully or not, Google’s oversight highlights a significant hurdle non-binary and transgender people already face in day-to-day lives. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and unemployment among the community is about two times higher than the national average.

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