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Facebook job ads algorithm still discriminates on gender, LinkedIn not so much • The Register

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Two years after Facebook settled five lawsuits claiming that its employment, housing, and credit ads illegally discriminate, researchers with the University of Southern California have found that the company still serves job ads unfairly, based on gender.

In a paper titled “Auditing for Discrimination in Algorithms Delivering Job Ads,” scheduled to appear at The Web Conference later this month, Basileal Imana, a doctoral student at USC, Aleksandra Korolova, USC assistant professor of computer science, and John Heidemann, USC research professor of computer science, explore bias in algorithmic job ad delivery at Facebook and LinkedIn.

Korolova, in an email to The Register, explained that since US law allows for ad delivery to be differentiated on the basis of qualifications, she and her colleagues developed a way to test for bias while factoring out lawful qualification-based biasing.

“Even when controlling for job qualifications, Facebook introduces a delivery skew by gender for job ads with balanced targeting,” Korolova said, noting that this advances the argument that “Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms are not merely biased but actually discriminatory.”

“Interestingly, we did not find such an effect when auditing LinkedIn’s algorithms,” she added.

In 2019, Korolova was among a different set of academics who, shortly after Facebook settled the above mentioned civil rights lawsuits and announced changes to combat discriminatory advertising, found biased behavior in Facebook’s ad delivery attributable to ad budgets and ad content.

Time to check again

This time, Korolova and her colleagues have looked at how Facebook and LinkedIn’s algorithmic ad platforms skew job ads by delivering them to viewers identified as male and female – where that data is available – in a ratio that differs from the expected gender distribution for the job.

They managed this by comparing the performance of two ads in three different job categories – delivery driver, software engineer, and sales associate – with known differences in gender distribution. They then weighed the expected ratio against the actual gender ratio among Facebook and LinkedIn ad recipients.

One such ad pair consisted of an ad to be a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza (98 per cent male) and an ad to be a delivery driver shuttling groceries for Instacart (more than 50 per cent female).

image of race with one running slowed by gender

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“The de facto gender distribution among drivers of these services is skewed male for Domino’s and skewed female for Instacart,” the paper explains.

“If a platform shows the Instacart ad to relatively more women than a Domino’s ad, we conclude that the platform’s algorithm is discriminatory, since both jobs have similar qualification requirements and thus a gender skew cannot be attributed to differences in qualifications across genders represented in the audience.”

The researchers found “a statistically significant gender skew on Facebook, and show no gender skew on LinkedIn.”

For software engineering job ads, the researchers choose recruitment pitches for Netflix (35 per cent female) and Nvidia (19 per cent female). They expected that an ad platform using an algorithm that learns and incorporates existing differences in employee demographics would show the Netflix job ad to more women than the Nvidia job ad and they were not surprised.

Facebook again skewed its ad distribution by gender; LinkedIn did not.

For sales associate positions, job ads for Reed Jewelers (jewelry sales being 62 per cent female per federal job statistics) and Leith Automotive (auto sales being 17.9 per cent female) were compared.

Again, this job ad category produced similar results to the previous ones: There was “statistically significant delivery skew between all jobs on Facebook but not for two of the three cases on LinkedIn.”

Facebook’s skewing of ads by gendering cannot be explained by differences in qualifications, the researchers argue, noting that their findings suggest “that Facebook’s algorithms may be responsible for unlawful discriminatory outcomes.”

According to Korolova, Facebook was informed of the researchers’ findings and has not responded. The Register asked Facebook for comment, but we’ve not heard back.

Something’s up

Asked why Facebook’s algorithm behaves differently from LinkedIn’s, Korolova proposed several possibilities.

“Facebook may have more sources of data about the users than LinkedIn, which enables them to better pick up on existing real-world skews,” she suggested. “Facebook may give higher weight to the engagement estimates in its ad delivery algorithms than LinkedIn. LinkedIn may make a deliberate effort in their algorithms to ensure fairness.”

She also allowed that the research methodology used might be insufficient to analyze LinkedIn’s algorithm, but noted that LinkedIn appears to have made a concerted effort to address algorithmic fairness.

Korolova said she and her colleagues would not presume to propose an optimal way to present job ads. “I think our assumption is that the gender of ad recipients should reflect the gender of the target population, as would occur from a naive algorithm of showing ads to all visitors,” she said.

Advertisers interested in increasing employee diversity, she said, “should be able to advertise to a balanced audience, rather than have decisions of who their ads go to be ‘overruled’ by Facebook.”

While acknowledging that outwardly neutral characteristics can reflect bias, citing the example of how home location data captures the bias of historical redlining, Korolova said it isn’t inevitable that Facebook’s ad delivery will be discriminatory.

“That their results are discriminatory in our data is particularly surprising given multiple prior observations that Facebook algorithms lead to skewed delivery and their statements that they were addressing it,” she said.

“With Facebook, these outcomes align with their business model of optimizing for advertiser and user ‘value’ (or engagement), suggesting the importance of external evaluation and potential regulation.”

Citing research costs approaching $5,000 in ad fees and a time investment of many months, the researchers argue that ad platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn should make it easier and more affordable to verify that ads comply with anti-discrimination laws. And since these platforms are unlikely to take such steps on their own, they suggest lawmakers should pass legislation to mandate access.

“We would like to make auditing by public interest researchers of Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms feasible, because we believe that will lead to greater transparency about skew and encourage addressing the problem,” said Korolova. “Facebook’s current transparency efforts fall far short of the feasibility goals.” ®

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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