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Facebook Sued for Discriminatory Ad Tool

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Businesses want to advertise to very targeted audiences. And with the wealth of information that social media behemoth Facebook has, perhaps no advertising platform in history has allowed businesses to more narrowly target their ads to specific consumers. But it turns out Facebook may have been allowing advertisers to narrow their focus in illegal ways.

Pro Publica revealed that Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude specific groups from seeing advertisements based on "Ethnic Affinities." And a lawsuit filed in federal court in California claims this practice violated federal laws on housing and employment discrimination.


As the New York Times points out, ads on Facebook "can be sent to people based not only on standard demographics like age, gender and location, but also on a bevy of other factors, like whether they have an anniversary coming, their interest in horseback riding, whether they use Gmail or Hotmail, and the languages they speak." Advertisers can also hide ads from users based on the same information.

But hiding certain ads from people based on race, gender, and other factors can violate federal housing and civil rights laws. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to "make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination." And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from placing employment ads "indicating any preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination, based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

The lawsuit against Facebook claims the company allowed employment advertisements and ads "with respect to the sale or rental of dwellings ... that indicate preference and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, and national origin." The suit also includes a chart of 50 or 60 demographic distinctions from which advertisers could hide ads, including "African-American," "Being Latino," and "Immigrant."

Status Update

Facebook initially attacked the lawsuit, calling it "utterly without merit." "Multicultural marketing is a common practice in the ad industry and helps brands reach audiences with more relevant advertising, a spokesperson said, adding, "Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law."

But days later Facebook updated its anti-discrimination protocols, disabling the ethnic affinity targeting on housing, employment, and credit ads. The company also said it would focus on educating advertisers about federal anti-discrimination laws and how its ad targeting tools should be used to comply with the law.

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