Facebook Hit With Civil Rights Lawsuit Over Race-Based Ad Targeting Options

Facebook has been slammed with a potential class-action lawsuit accusing it of violating federal civil rights laws by publishing housing and job ads that discriminate against minorities.

"Facebook has operated and is operating an advertising platform ... that publishes, and causes to be published, discriminatory and illegal housing and employment advertisements," the users allege in a class-action complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. "By clicking on a button labeled 'Exclude People,' ad buyers ... can prevent their ads from being displayed to users matching characteristics such as 'African American (US),' 'Asian American (US),' or 'Immigrant.'"

The lawsuit was brought by three Facebook users -- New York resident Karen Savage, Gretna, Louisiana resident Victor Onuoha and Suzanne-Juliette Mobley of New Orleans -- who say they have looked at Facebook ads for housing and jobs in the last year. 

They claim that Facebook's race-based ad targeting options violate the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those laws prohibit companies from publishing housing or job ads that discriminate based on factors including race, religion, sex and national origin.

Their lawsuit comes around one week after ProPublica reported that Facebook enables advertisers to prevent their ads from being shown to users who belong to certain "ethnic affinity" groups -- including people the social networking believes have an ethnic affinity of black, Asian-American and Hispanic.

ProPublica reported that it was able to use Facebook's self-service tool to create an ad for an event aimed at renters, and then block it from pages of users with black, Asian-American or Hispanic ethnic affinities.

Facebook's Christian Martinez, head of multicultural marketing, responded to ProPublica's report by stating that the company's policies prohibits advertisers from excluding minorities from job or housing ads. "If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action," he wrote.

He added: "We will also remove an ad from our platform if the government agency responsible for enforcing discrimination laws tells us that the ad reflects illegal discrimination.

But the people who are suing Facebook say the company needs to do more. "No user can tell whether they are subject to illegal discrimination, because the discrimination occurs with the ads they do not see. As a result, the problem will not be remedied unless Facebook is forced to take additional action," the complaint states.

News of Facebook's ad-targeting options also sparked complaints by lawmakers. Last week, members of the several black lawmakers urged CEO Mark Zuckerberg to revise the race-based targeting exclusions.

It's not clear whether Facebook may be liable for discriminatory housing or job ads posted by outside companies. The federal Communications Decency Act broadly immunizes Web services providers from liability for activity by users. But in 2008, a federal appellate court refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Roommates.com of offering discriminatory housing ads. The court said in that case that Roommates may potentially be liable if it helped "develop" illegal ads. 

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