Facebook Removes Some Targeting Options To Settle Civil Rights Investigation

Facebook will no longer allow advertisers to target certain ads based on race, national origin, disability status, and other characteristics protected by civil rights laws, in order to settle an investigation by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The social networking service has promised to stop giving advertisers the option to exclude people with certain "ethnic affinities" from seeing ads for housing, credit, jobs, insurance and places of public accommodation (including restaurants, colleges and sports stadiums). Facebook also says it won't offer tools that enable anyone offering certain types of ads -- including ads for jobs, housing, or places of public accommodation -- to discriminate based on race, national origin, sexual orientation, disability and other factors covered by civil rights laws.

“Facebook’s advertising platform allowed unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability and religion,” Ferguson said in a statement issued Tuesday. “That’s wrong, illegal, and unfair.”

The agreement will resolve a 20-month investigation that began soon after ProPublica reported that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to block their ads from users who Facebook classified as having an ethnic affinity of black, Asian-American or Hispanic.

It's illegal under federal law to publish housing or job ads that discriminate based on factors including race, religion, sex and national origin. Some states have anti-discrimination laws that protect a broader range of people.

ProPublica's report sparked a civil lawsuit that's currently pending in California. Facebook is also facing a separate lawsuit in New York for allegedly enabling landlords and real estate brokers to block their ads from families with children, women and users whose interests suggest they are disabled or of a particular national origin.

Facebook said in April that it had reviewed its targeting options, and that it had "removed thousands of categories from exclusion targeting."

Will Castleberry, vice president for state and local policy at Facebook, said the company has worked with Ferguson's office to address the issues he raised. "Discriminatory advertising has no place on our platform, and we'll continue to improve our ad products so they're relevant, effective, and safe for everyone," Castleberry stated.

Ferguson's office says the agreement requires Facebook to "fix its advertising platform to remove the unlawful targeting options within 90 days," and to pay $90,000 in costs and fees.

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