Facebook Accused of Racist Ad Policies

John Lister's picture

Facebook has denied claims that it allows racial discrimination in advertisements based on houses and jobs. A lawsuit may come down to interpretation of anti-discrimination laws.

The lawsuit is filed against Facebook and "up to 9,999" unnamed co-defendants, though that appears to be a legal procedural move. It says Facebook has violated both the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act.

The legal action follows an investigation by "public interest journalism" group ProPublica, which bought an advertisement aimed at house buyers to check out claims of racial bias.

Test Ad Blocks Users By Race

When buying the ad, staff at the site targeted it at New Yorkers aged 18-65. They then selected an option to target it at people that were interested in buying a house.

They were then able to select a second option which prevented the advertisement from being seen by users whose "ethnic affinity" was listed as African American, Asian American or Hispanic (with Spanish dominant). The staff reported that they weren't offered an option to exclude Caucasian people. (Source: propublica.org)

According to ProPublica, that's a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act's ban on rental or sale ads that indicate discrimination on a range of grounds including race. It also says that similar options in Facebook's job advertising tools constitute a breach of the Civil Rights Act.

Facebook Says Policies Bar Discrimination

Facebook says it will vigorously defend the lawsuit, which it describes as without merit. It argues that although it has options designed to make it easier to target specific communities including people of a particular ethnic background, its policies ban advertisers from using options for illegal purposes, including discrimination. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

If the case does go to trial, it's possible one major issue may be the difference between the spirit and letter of the law. When it comes to advertising, the acts primarily deal with the content of ads, with clear bans on an ad saying that only certain racial groups are eligible for a job, rental or purchase.

In this case, the effect is that people in some racial groups may never see the ad in the first case. That may not violate the letter of the law, but could be held to have the same unlawful effect.

What's Your Opinion?

Should Facebook allow targeting of advertising by ethnic background? If it uses such options, is there more it could to do prevent discrimination? Is there a difference between the content of ads and whether or not people can see the ads?

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dan_2160's picture

As a fair housing attorney, I've got to object to the headline on this otherwise accurate article. Nobody is accusing Facebook of "racist ad policies." The lawsuit charges violations of the nation's Fair Housing Act (first passed in 1968) and Civil Rights Act because Facebook is allowing those who advertise housing to prevent members of protected classes from seeing the housing ads. This may be a nuanced point, but there is a difference.

Race and national origin are protected classes - excluding African Americans, Asians, or Hispanics from seeing the ad is also illegal. Other protected classes under the federal law include familial status, disability, religion, color, and sex. Many states and local jurisdictions have adopted their own fair housing laws establish additional protected classes, very frequently age and source of lawful income. A landlord is certainly free to reject a rental application to anybody who does not qualify. They just cannot reject an application but not because they are female, or Black, or have a disability, etc. Similarly they cannot refuse to sell to you because of your race, etc.

And if you think about it carefully, what is possibly right about denying housing to somebody because they are of a certain race, religion, gender, or have a disability? Seriously, what could be possibly right about that?

Facebook could prevent these plainly illegal practices by using analytics that identify housing ads (via the use of certain words) and then not allowing any protected classes, "affinity groups" in Facebook parlance, from being excluded from seeing the ad -- or allowing the ad to be seen only by affinity groups that exclude a protected class.

dan_2160's picture

Today, Nov. 11, Facebook wisely agreed to ban the use of affinity groups in advertising for housing, jobs, and credit -- in compliance with longstanding national law. For details, see https://deadline.com/2016/11/facebook-stop-discriminatory-ethnic-affinity-ads-housing-jobs-credit-1201852789/