California’s Court of Appeals Rules that Meta Can't Evade Liability in Case Claiming Facebook’s Ad Tools Violate Users' Civil Rights

September 25, 2023 12:00 pm

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s First District Court of Appeal has ruled that Facebook can be sued for allegedly discriminating on the basis of gender and age, in violation of civil rights laws.

In the case Samantha Liapes et al., v. Facebook, Inc., the court of appeal ruled that a lower court had erred by holding that Facebook is immune from liability pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally indemnifies interactive websites from liability for third-party content. The Court of Appeal also found that the allegations were sufficient for the case to proceed on claims that Facebook’s ad targeting and delivery tools were discriminatory and aided and abetted discrimination by advertisers.

Facebook has created an advertising platform that allows companies to target advertisements to specific categories of users. Ms. Liapes claims that Facebook has designed and uses various tools — some with solicited advertiser input, and others without — that treat users disparately on the basis of protected characteristics, violating California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, to provide advertisements for insurance.

Ms. Liapes is a 48-year-old woman and regular Facebook user, who was interested in learning about insurance products via ads on her news feed. She was unable to apply for a quote and possibly obtain a policy because she could not view several life insurance ads posted on Facebook due to her age or gender.

California’s First District Court of Appeal decision aligns with the arguments made by Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Southern California, ACLU of Northern California, and Upturn in an amicus brief. The groups argued that Facebook’s conduct was discriminatory and harmful, particularly given the insurance industry’s extensive history of discrimination against women, older people, and other marginalized groups.

“This is a watershed decision for online discrimination,” said David Brody, managing attorney for the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It is not acceptable to target and steer ads for important economic opportunities on the basis of protected characteristics like race or sex. This decision makes clear that algorithms and business models built on discrimination must change.”

“Consumers today rely on the internet, including online advertising, to access important economic opportunities, such as insurance products. Facebook advertises insurance opportunities directly to some users, in this case men and younger people, while illegally forcing other users, including women and older people, to make additional efforts to learn about those same opportunities,” said Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney in the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “We’re glad that the ruling opens possible pathways for accountability against social media platforms.”

“If a tech company violates your rights, they should be held responsible just like a brick-and-mortar business would be,” said Jacob Snow, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “This important ruling reaffirms that tech companies are not immune from claims under decades-old civil rights laws. The targeted advertising at the core of Meta’s surveillance business model threatens to harm already marginalized communities, and this ruling confirms that courts should fully consider those claims.”

“No one should be denied insurance or other important services because of who they are,” said Amanda Goad, Audrey Irmas director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California. “We appreciate the court’s recognition of the harm that discriminatory ad targeting and delivery practices can cause to users like Ms. Liapes.”

“Civil rights laws protect people both online and offline,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, senior project director at Upturn. “Our research clearly shows how Facebook’s own actions contribute to discrimination in online advertising. It’s time Facebook faces civil rights liability for its discriminatory actions.”

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