Facebook halts ad targeting after bias complaints
After years of criticism, Facebook announced Tuesday that it would stop allowing advertisers in key categories to show their message only to people of a certain race, gender or age group.
The company said that anyone advertising housing, jobs or credit – three areas where federal law prohibits discrimination in ads – would no longer have the option of explicitly aiming ads at people on the basis of those characteristics.
The changes are part of a settlement with groups that have sued Facebook over these practices in recent years, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Communications Workers of America. They also cover advertising on Instagram and Messenger, which Facebook owns.
“We think this settlement is historic and will go a long way toward making sure that these types of discriminatory practices can’t happen,” Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, said in an interview.
The company said it planned to carry out the changes by the end of the year and would pay less than $5 million to settle five lawsuits brought by the groups.
A related complaint by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is pending. A Facebook spokesman said the company was in discussions with the department to resolve the case. A HUD official did not respond to a request for comment.
The change comes with Facebook under pressure on many fronts. On Tuesday, it was on the defensive with the Trump administration after it blocked posts by the White House social media director, Dan Scavino Jr. Facebook later apologized, saying the posts had been mistaken for spam – but not before President Trump warned on Twitter that “I will be looking into this” and declared that Facebook, Google and Twitter “are sooo on the side of the Radical Left Democrats.”
And over the last year, Facebook has dealt with scandal after scandal related to the company’s data-sharing practices and privacy. In early 2018, The New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm, had inappropriately harvested information from millions of Facebook profiles, largely because of Facebook’s improper stewardship of user data. Facebook has been criticized for a data breach late last year, compromising the accounts of millions of users.
Several news organizations, including The Times and ProPublica, have also reported on the use of Facebook’s targeting tools in ways that prevent members of certain groups, like women or workers over 40, from seeing ads.
Pauline Kim, a professor of employment law at Washington University in St. Louis, praised the changes but cautioned against overstating their significance.
“Taking the explicit ability to discriminate off the table is an important first step,” Kim said. “But I don’t think it solves the problem of the potential for biased serving of ads.”