Facebook agrees to advertising overhaul to settle US discrimination suits

Roman Schwartz
March 22, 2019

The changes apply to advertisers who offer housing, employment and credit offers to U.S. -based users of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.

Last year, Facebook removed more than 5,000 ads targeting options that could have been abused to place discriminatory ads across its platform.

The far-reaching settlement compels Facebook to withhold a wide array of detailed demographic information - including ZIP codes, gender, and age - from advertisers when they market housing, credit, and job opportunities.

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. "These changes are the result of historic settlement agreements with leading civil rights organisations and ongoing input from civil rights experts". The litigation was settled out of court, with new policies included as part of the settlement.

As was the case with that change, larger organizations with their own data operations will be less affected, as Facebook continues to allow advertisers to target ads using their own data.

Sandberg added that Facebook would be working to ensure that future advertisements do not run afoul of fair housing laws.

In addition, the company pledged to build a tool allowing users to search all current housing ads listed in the United States, regardless of whether the ads were directed at them.

Facebook anti-discrimination opt
Facebook agrees to limit ad targeting after discrimination lawsuits

Advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities will now have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall. Critics have said such a swath of finely tuned categories, like people interested in wheelchair ramps, are essentially proxies to find and exclude certain groups.

"Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook", Sheryl Sandberg, the company's chief operating officer, said in a blog post to be published on Tuesday.

"This settlement positively impacts all of Facebook's 210 million users in the US since everyone is protected by our nation's fair housing laws", said Lisa Rice, President and CEO of NFHA.

"There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads", she wrote.

The legal efforts followed a ProPublica investigation that found Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans.

That's an inherent problem with algorithm-defined systems - because algorithms are trained on data obtained from actual usage, they're also tilted towards existing biases within the chosen audience.

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