Face­book halts ad tar­get­ing af­ter bias com­plaints

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Noam Scheiber and Mike Isaac

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.”

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