Facebook will nix 5,000 targeted-advertising functions


SAN FRANCISCO – Aug. 23, 2018 – Facebook is planning to remove 5,000 targeted advertising functions from its platform to prevent discrimination, the social media company announced in a blog post Tuesday.

The moves limit advertisers from excluding users based on ethnicity and religion. They follow investigations that found Facebook's automated advertising system, which allowed brands to target people by affinities, would also allow marketers to exclude certain groups. A real estate agent could, for example, prevent black and Latino users from seeing housing ads.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed an administrative complaint alleging that the social network violated the Fair Housing Act with its targeting systems. Facebook said it was working with HUD to address the concerns.

Facebook is "committed to protecting people from discriminatory advertising on our platforms," and that's why it's removing 5,000 targeting functions, the company said in its blog post. "While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimizing the risk of abuse is more important."

Facebook's main source of income is advertising, and Facebook says it uses data on its users to provide more relevant advertisements to individuals.

Ad functions can be used to target Facebook users based on their likes and interests. For example, a Pepsi ad could target a Facebook user that has shown past interest in soft drink.

However, investigations by nonprofit news organization ProPublica found that the functions could also be used to exclude certain groups from seeing housing ads.

In 2016, ProPublica found that by using a designation called "Ethnic Affinities," Facebook let advertisers target and exclude certain groups of users when placing ads for a new apartment or a house for sale. ProPublica said Facebook approved an ad for a housing-related event that excluded African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics.

Following the ProPublica investigation, Facebook updated its advertising policies, adding an anti-discrimination section. "Ads must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on personal attributes," the policy said.

Another ProPublica investigation in fall 2017 found that Facebook was still allowing advertisers to discriminate. ProPublica bought housing rental ads on Facebook and asked that they not be shown to users belonging to groups such as "African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers," and Facebook approved the ads in minutes.

The ProPublica investigations called into question whether Facebook was in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish housing advertising that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

"When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it's the same as slamming the door in someone's face," HUD Assistant Secretary Anna María Farias said in a statement Friday.

Facebook is also facing a lawsuit from the National Fair Housing Alliance and other organizations, which says investigations by fair housing supporters in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and San Antonio, Texas, show that Facebook continues to let advertisers discriminate. It seeks unspecified damages and a court order to end discrimination.

Facebook said Tuesday that in addition to removing targeting functions, the company is rolling out a new certification requiring advertisers to comply with non-discrimination policies.

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Related Topics: Fair housing