Facebook Accused Of Encouraging Sex Discrimination In Employment Ads

Facebook's ad platform enables employers to discriminate by blocking women from viewing job ads, the digital rights group ACLU alleges in a complaint filed Tuesday with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Facebook directs, encourages, and helps its advertisers (including employers and employment agencies) to use Facebook’s ad platform to target their ads (including their employment ads) to a narrow audience, including targeting audiences based on the gender users have provided to Facebook," reads the complaint, which was brought on behalf of the Communications Workers of America union and three female Facebook users who are currently seeking jobs.

The ACLU names 10 specific employers -- Abas USA, City of Greensboro, Defenders, Nebraska Furniture Mart, Need Work Today, Renewal by Andersen LLC, Rice Tire, JK Moving Services, Enhanced Roofing & Modeling, and Xenith -- that allegedly targeted job ads to only men. The job ads were for fields that tend to be dominated by men, according to the complaint. For instance, the city of Greensboro, North Carolina allegedly recruited for the city's police department by using Facebook's platform to send ads to males between the ages of 25 and 35.

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Tuesday's complaint marks the latest in a series of discrimination allegations that have dogged Facebook since October of 2016, when 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. 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, 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. Those allegations are also at the center of a complaint against the company filed last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last month, Facebook said it was removing more than 5,000 ad-targeting options -- including ones that may enable discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Earlier this summer, the company 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.

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.

Facebook recently drew on that statute to argue that the lawsuit centered on housing ads should be dismissed. "What makes the content at issue allegedly unlawful is controlled by third-party advertisers who create the housing ads and then target them in ways plaintiffs claim are discriminatory," Facebook wrote in recent court papers.

The ACLU alleges in the complaints filed Tuesday that Facebook serves as more than a mere intermediary for employers. "When employers want to recruit applicants for employment, Facebook performs nearly all of the necessary functions of an employment agency and marketing firm," the complaint alleges. "Facebook helps the employer to create the ad; collects, develops and provides databases of information on Facebook users to employers so that such employers can know which individuals are looking for employment, know various types of information about those applicants, such as their age and gender, and exclude certain groups of people from their ad campaigns."

The organization also accuses Facebook of knowing that employers use the ad platform to discrimate, and encouraging them to do so.

"Facebook provides detailed analytical ad performance data to advertisers on how their ad campaigns are performing, including on how the ad is performing among Facebook users by gender," the ACLU alleges. "By providing these data on an ongoing basis, Facebook encourages advertisers to restrict their ad targets by gender so that their advertisements will focus on the higher performing gender."

Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne said Tuesday that discrimination is "strictly prohibited in our policies."

"Over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We are reviewing the complaint and look forward to defending our practices," Osborne stated.

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