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Social Networking Powerhouse Facebook Steps Forward to Bar Discriminatory Advertising on Its Site

Facebook interface
Facebook interface
Rachel Goodman,
Former Staff Attorney,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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February 8, 2017

Online advertisers wield immense power.

With any given ad, they can reach the consumers they have in mind by targeting specific groups of people with exquisite detail. Such personalization has serious consequences for civil rights. It’s entirely possible for a property manager to show ads for available apartments only to white men who watched the Super Bowl. That could be a very effective way of keeping everyone else out of its buildings.

This kind of discriminatory targeting is illegal in ads for housing as well as in ads for credit and employment opportunities. We have special protections in these areas to ensure that people are treated fairly because access to good housing, loans, and jobs is crucial to achieving the American dream.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the recruiting of employees in a way that excludes Black or Latino candidates — or women or Muslims for that matter— from the applicant pool. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to advertise housing in a way that keeps members of these groups from knowing when housing is available. And it’s similarly illegal to keep people from applying for credit by denying them information under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Despite these laws, online advertising platforms have given advertisers the power to explicitly target ads by gender, race, or religion, or to exclude members of particular groups from seeing these ads. And not surprisingly, they have also failed to warn advertisers that they may be engaging in illegal targeting in violation of landmark civil rights laws.

Until now, that is.

Today Facebook is taking significant steps forward that we believe place it at the vanguard of the online fight to protect civil rights. Facebook has updated its policies to clearly prohibit using its “audience selection” tools to wrongfully target or exclude specific groups of people from seeing ads.

Perhaps even more significantly, Facebook has built a system to identify ads for housing, credit, or employment (You can read the details here). For ads in these categories, it will reject any attempt to target by multicultural affinity (formerly called “ethnic affinity”), and it will require all advertisers to certify compliance both with Facebook’s nondiscrimination policies and with laws that prohibit this targeting.

We’ve written before about our concern about Facebook’s ethnic affinity ad targeting and advocated for Facebook to make changes. We’re very pleased to report that Facebook is doing the right thing now. In fact, we’re urging other players in the online ad ecosystem to take note and build similar systems. Given the applicable civil rights laws, ads for housing, credit, and employment must be treated differently across the internet by all companies.

Facebook is taking the lead, but there’s more work to do. All ad platforms should make it impossible to target ads in these categories by any protected class status, including race, gender, and religion. And we need to keep educating platforms and advertisers about the danger of discrimination that targeting presents, even when ads are targeted by zip code or based on what music you listen to.

Facebook, one of the biggest players in online advertising, is acknowledging these civil rights concerns and a deploying its muscle to protect them. The rest of the industry should wake up, take notice and follow suit. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law.

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