Faced with civil lawsuits and a new federal investigation, Facebook said Tuesday it's removing thousands of ad-targeting options -- including ones that may enable discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.
"We’re committed to protecting people from discriminatory advertising on our platforms," Facebook said Tuesday in a blog post. "That’s why we’re removing over 5,000 targeting options to help prevent misuse. While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimizing the risk of abuse is more important."
The company specifically adds that it will limit advertisers' ability "to exclude audiences that relate to attributes such as ethnicity or religion."
Among other segments, Facebook has removed the ability to block ads from being seen by users interested in things like “Passover,” “Evangelicalism,” “Native American culture,” “Islamic culture,” and “Buddhism.”
Facebook also will soon require U.S. advertisers to certify that they have reviewed the company's non-discrimination policies and comply with them. The social networking service says its policies prohibit discrimination, but allow advertisers to target ads "to a specific audience based on known interests" that align with the product or service being sold.
Facebook's latest move caps nearly two years of scrutiny surrounding its targeting tools. In October of 2016, ProPublica reported that Facebook's self-service ad tools allowed advertisers to block real estate ads from users Facebook classified as having an "ethnic affinity" of black, Asian-American or Hispanic.
A company spokesperson said at the time that the social networking service determines "ethnic affinity" based on pages and posts that users liked or engaged with.
After ProPublica's initial report, Facebook updated its ad guidelines to strengthen prohibitions against discrimination 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 said it would require advertisers offering housing and employment ads to certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Despite the move, ProPublica reported last November that the company still allowed advertisers to prevent minorities from viewing housing ads.
In November of 2016, a group of users sued Facebook for allegedly violating civil rights laws by enabling race-based ad targeting. That lawsuit is pending before U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California.
This March, the National Fair Housing Alliance filed a separate lawsuit against Facebook in federal court in Manhattan. That lawsuit, which remains pending before U.S. District Court Judge John Koeltl, alleges that Facebook enables landlords and brokers to prevent ads from being shown to women, families with children, and users with interests suggesting a disability or particular national origin.
Lawyers with the Trump administration told Koeltl Friday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint against Facebook over the allegations raised by the Fair Housing Alliance.
Facebook says the decision to eliminate targeting options was in the works before HUD brought its complaint. "We’ve been building these tools for a long time and collecting input from different outside groups," a company spokesperson says.
Whether Facebook violated any laws with its targeting options remains an unsettled question. It's illegal to publish housing or job ads that discriminate based on factors such as race, religion, sex and national origin, but the Communications Decency Act typically immunizes interactive platforms like Facebook from liability for ads created by users.
Last month, Facebook settled an investigation by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson by promising to stop allowing advertisers to block ads for housing, credit, jobs, insurance and places of public accommodation from people based on ethnic affinities.