Late last year, when it emerged that Facebook allows advertisers to block people in some age groups from viewing job ads, the company defended its practice.
"Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work," Rob Goldman, Facebook's vice president of ads, wrote at the time.
Now, people who are suing Facebook and other companies over the ads say that Goldman's statement supports their case. "Facebook publicly affirmed that it believes that age-restrictive job advertising is appropriate and that Facebook encourages employers to engage in this practice," the Communications Workers of America and others write in an amended age discrimination complaint filed this week. "The fact that age-restrictive job advertising has apparently become an 'accepted industry practice' among American employers and employment agencies does not make it lawful."
The union, along with three job seekers over the age of 40, alleged in a class-action complaint that more than 100 employers and employment agencies were excluding older workers from job ads on Facebook. The suit came at around the same time that ProPublica published a report detailing companies' use of Facebook's targeting tools to block ads based on age.
The initial complaint specifically referenced ads placed by 13 companies -- including Facebook, T-Mobile, Amazon and Cox Communications. The amended version of the complaint references ads by an additional three companies -- Ikea, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and the University of Maryland Medical System.
Facebook's ad-targeting system has led to at least two other civil rights suits against the company. One case, currently underway in California, was brought by three Facebook users who allege that it publishes housing and job ads that discriminate against minorities. That suit came soon after ProPublica reported that Facebook enabled advertisers to prevent their ads from being shown to users who belong to certain "ethnic affinity" groups -- including people the social networking platform believes have an ethnic affinity of black, Asian-American and Hispanic.
Facebook subsequently updated its ad guidelines, which specifically prohibit advertisers from discriminating against users based on race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, disability, or medical or genetic condition. The company also says advertisers must comply with civil rights laws.
But in March, the National Fair Housing Alliance and other groups alleged in a new lawsuit that Facebook's platform illegally allows housing advertisers to block ads from women, families with children, and users with interests suggesting a disability or particular national origin.
It's not clear whether the company could be liable for discriminatory ads posted by outside parties. 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 be responsible if it helped "develop" illegal ads.