Facebook Still Fails To Prevent Discriminatory Ads

Facebook is still allowing advertisers to prevent minorities from viewing housing ads, an investigation by ProPublica revealed this week.

The new report comes almost exactly one year after ProPublica first revealed that Facebook's self-service ad tool enabled discrimination. Last November, the news organization created an ad for an event aimed at renters, and then blocked it from pages of users classified as having an "ethnic affinity" of black, Asian-American or Hispanic. The ad reportedly was approved by Facebook 15 minutes after ProPublica arranged to purchase it.

News about the capability triggered complaints by lawmakers, and also sparked a potential class-action civil rights lawsuit. The Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit companies from publishing housing or job ads that discriminate based on factors like race, religion, sex and national origin.

Soon after ProPublica's report, Facebook changed its policy to prohibit marketers from using a race-based targeting option for ads offering housing, employment or credit.

But Facebook's new policy against such ads evidently wasn't foolproof. This week, ProPublica took another look at Facebook and found that not much had changed.

"ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers," the news organization writes. "Every single ad was approved within minutes."

Facebook acknowledged the report. "This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments," Ami Vora, vice president of product management, stated.

After the first ProPublica report came out, Facebook began using artificial intelligence to identify ads for housing, jobs or financial offers. If the algorithms tag an ad as falling into one of those categories, advertisers are required to certify that their ads don't violate discrimination laws.

Vora stated that the ads purchased by ProPublica didn't trigger that request for certification "due to a technical failure."

Vora added that the company will again revise its policies. Going forward, the company will require all advertisers that block ads from some categories of users to certify compliance with Facebook's anti-discrimination policies.

Facebook also plans to begin manually reviewing ads that target users based on sensitive criteria, including politics, religion and ethnicity. The company said last month that it will hire 1,000 people to review ads on the service.

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