Facebook Curbs Ad Targeting To Settle Civil Rights Lawsuits

Facebook will settle civil rights lawsuits by prohibiting advertisers of housing, employment or credit offers from targeting ads based on age, gender, ZIP code and ethnic affinity -- often used as a proxy for race.

“Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg stated Tuesday. “They should never be used to exclude or harm people.”

She added that the company is creating a tool that will allow people to search for all housing ads in the U.S. Facebook will also pay around $5 million.

The news comes around one month after Facebook said in court papers that it had agreed to settle complaints brought by the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU and other organizations. The watchdogs alleged that Facebook enabled illegal discrimination by offering targeting options that allowed advertisers to block ads from people based on gender, ethnic affinities and other categories protected by civil rights laws.

The legal battle over Facebook's targeting options dates to November of 2016, 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 believes have an ethnic affinity of black, Asian-American and Hispanic.

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 in November of 2017 that the company still allowed advertisers to prevent minorities from viewing housing ads. Several months after that subsequent report, the National Fair Housing Alliance sued Facebook in New York.

Last year, Facebook eliminated 5,000 ad-targeting options, including ones that enabled discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Among other segments, Facebook removed advertisers' ability to block ads from being seen by users interested in things like “Passover,” “Evangelicalism,” “Native American culture,” “Islamic culture,” and “Buddhism.”

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