Facebook settles with ACLU over discriminatory ads

Andrew Cummings
March 21, 2019

"Within the separate space, Facebook will eliminate age- and gender-based targeting as well as options for targeting associated with protected characteristics or groups".

Most of Facebook's revenue comes through its sophisticated advertising platform that lets advertisers select who sees their ads. All advertisers creating related ads must certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

How, and even if, that can be avoided is still a hot topic among machine learning experts, but even so, anything Facebook can do to limit active targeting in this regard is a positive step.

In September, we collectively filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of CWA and individual job seekers against Facebook and a number of companies that targeted certain ads for jobs to younger male Facebook users. Facebook has agreed to pay legal fees and costs, for a total of almost Dollars 3 million.

"One of our top priorities is protecting people from discrimination on Facebook", chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in her company blog post. ProPublica was able to buy dozens of home-rental ads targeted at audiences that specifically excluded "African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers".

"As the internet-and platforms like Facebook - play an increasing role in connecting us all to information related to economic opportunities, it's crucial that micro-targeting not be used to exclude groups that already face discrimination", ACLU senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin said in a statement. Some firms, for example, were targeting ads only to people under age 45.

Facebook became the target of five different discrimination lawsuits between 2016 and 2018 alleging that its online ad systems kept users from seeing ads pertaining to employment, housing or credit based on factors such as race, age or gender.

But a subsequent investigation by ProPublica in 2017 still found "a significant lapse" in how Facebook monitored advertisers. As part of the pledge, Facebook removed thousands of additional targeting categories. But today's settlement goes further.

Facebook will also roll out a new system of automated and human review to catch discriminatory ads, as well as education and certification requirements globally around its advertising policies for housing, employment, and credit ads. Those advertisers will not be able to target users in a geographic area smaller than a 15-mile radius, which advocates say tamps down on "digital" neighborhood redlining.

We're building a tool so you can search for and view all current housing ads in the United States targeted to different places across the country, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you.

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