Facebook Commits to Banning Discriminatory Targeted Ads

Facebook will stop allowing marketers to target advertisements based on housing, jobs or credit to people of a specific race, gender or age group. Federal law bans discrimination in these three areas, and Facebook’s changes would put the company in compliance. The move is also part of a settlement of several lawsuits opposing the practice. The American Civil Liberties Union, National Fair Housing Alliance and Communications Workers of America are among those that have sued Facebook over biased targeted advertising.

The New York Times reports that the settlement covers ads on Facebook-owned Instagram and Messenger, and that Facebook stated it will “carry out the changes by the end of the year and would pay less than $5 million to settle five lawsuits brought by the groups.”

A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development complaint is still pending, and Facebook confirmed it is in conversations to resolve the case. These suits were just the latest in a long string of data breaches and other problems bedeviling Facebook, including a recent tweet from President Trump declaring that Facebook, Google and Twitter “are sooo on the side of the Radical Left Democrats.”

With the new changes, Facebook will require those advertising housing, employment and credit “to use a separate portal that will not include gender or age as targeting options … [and] will also preclude selecting an affinity group of people interested in a race, ethnicity or religion.” Those marketers that “deliberately and repeatedly avoid the new portal when placing ads in the three regulated areas will probably face consequences, though the company said it had yet to determine those.”

With regard to settling the discrimination lawsuits, Washington University professor of employment law Pauline Kim “praised the changes but cautioned against overstating their significance.”

“I don’t think it solves the problem of the potential for biased serving of ads,” she said, noting that Facebook’s algorithms could, over time, serve an ad primarily to men “if it determined that men were much likelier to click on the ad.” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg “acknowledged the limits of the policy changes and said Facebook had committed to working with the other parties to find additional ways to root out discrimination.”

“In addition to being a historic settlement of five separate lawsuits that will change practices on Facebook and other platforms, it’s also notable that we agreed to continue to study the algorithmic effect of ads with Facebook,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero.

Targeted advertising has helped Facebook (and rival Google) “take in most of the more than $100 billion in annual online ad spending.” But, with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other pushback elsewhere, Facebook and other tech giants are facing “stricter safeguards in handling user information” and users are “more hesitant to share their own data.”

Sandberg also noted that while the new changes will “make advertising on Facebook less efficient for some customers who had used the targeting practices … we believe that that was a cost well worth bearing.”