The social network giant, Facebook—amid criticism and a push from public figures and congressional leaders—announced that the site would no longer allow advertisers to exclude specific racial and ethnic groups in the areas of housing, credit, or employment advertisements. Erin Egan, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, announced the changes.
Previously, Facebook, while it had explicitly banned advertisers from discriminating against racial and ethnic groups, had offered advertisers the ability to target and even exclude certain groups of Facebook users via “Ethnic Affinity” marketing. Through an ethnic affinity assignment, Facebook tracked the pages and posts liked by its users or those with which they may have engaged. Facebook’s practice was put on full display when Pro Publica, the public interest investigative journal, utilizing the previously-permitted practice, placed an advertisement for a housing-related event that excluded African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Following Pro Publica’s advertisement, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, tasked with enforcing fair housing laws, addressed with Facebook its “serious concerns” about the site’s practice. Other policy makers and civil rights leaders—including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois), the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—further engaged in a series of discussions with Facebook about their practices. These leaders’ concerns centered on their belief that marketers would use ethnic affinity marketing to run ads that discriminated against minorities in areas where minorities have historically faced discrimination.
Facebook took note, and doubled down on its effort to ensure that its site complied with federal laws, which explicitly prohibit advertisements that exclude people based on race and gender, among other areas. To that end, Facebook announced that it would prohibit the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads identified as offering housing, employment and credit. This new policy change also includes one additional measure: Facebook will now require advertisers to affirm that they will not place discriminatory ads on Facebook and will offer educational materials to help advertisers understand their obligations.
However, Facebook’s new policies have not been enough to prevent legal action. At least one class action lawsuit has been filed against the company, with the plaintiffs arguing that Facebook’s previous advertising algorithm violated the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Still, both Facebook and those who pushed for these new changes are optimistic that current issues will be remedied while preventing similar issues in the future.