Facebook stops advertisers from using race to target ads

Ads that exclude groups of people based on race, ethnicity, or gender were banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1964, enacted when many landlords refused to rent to African Americans and Latinos.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, delivers the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco, April 12, 2016.

Facebook has agreed to strengthen its advertising screening after allowing several racially discriminatory housing ads to run on the site. 

The social media platform came under fire in October when a ProPublica investigation revealed that the Facebook had allowed advertisers not only to target ads to certain minorities, but also to illegally exclude some groups from seeing housing ads. After talking with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, members of Congress, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Facebook has agreed to end all selective advertising based on race.

"We are going to turn off, actually prohibit, the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment, and credit," Erin Egan, Facebook's vice president of US public policy, told USA Today.

Facebook will provide advertisers with educational materials explaining their legal obligations, and then require them to confirm that they will not place discriminatory ads on the site. The social media site is still working on reprogramming the algorithm that monitors for discriminatory practices.

“We are going to have to build a solution to do this. It is not going to happen overnight,” Steve Satterfield, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook, told ProPublica.

Advertisements that exclude groups of people based on a variety of identity-based factors, including race, ethnicity, and gender, were banned under the Fair Housing Act of 1964, enacted when many African American and Latino families struggled to find housing because landlords would not rent to them.

"There's a part of the Fair Housing Act that makes it illegal to have discriminatory advertising. That part applies to both the person taking out the ad and also the publisher of that ad," Rigel Oliveri, professor of law at the University of Missouri, told USA Today.

In the eyes of the law, Facebook is not "just hosting" these ads, he explained. "It's encouraging and providing the advertisers with the ability to exclude people based on their race and ethnicity,” he said.

Prior to this, Facebook allowed advertisers to target their ads based on a category it labeled “ethnic affinities," which led a group of Facebook users to file a lawsuit against the site.

"These tools are intended to be inclusive. That's why we created these tools," Ms. Egan told USA Today. "People have been using multicultural advertising for years in order to reach people."

The tools were designed to target advertisements to the appropriate audience – Facebook gave the example of hair products marketed to African-American women – but these advertising practices have created a moral grey area. As such, advertising experts recommend simply avoiding such practices, as The Christian Science Monitor's Zhai Yun Tan reported last month:

As Jerome Williams, professor and provost of Rutgers University-Newark tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, the original purpose of targeted advertising was not to "exclude other groups" but to "concentrate your message to a particular group."

"Because of technology, you can prohibit certain people from viewing it. That becomes risky," Prof. Williams says. "I think you want to avoid those type of strategies."

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