Landmark Discrimination Settlements Will Change Ad Targeting on Facebook



As a result of this settlement, discrimination will be much harder to achieve through Facebook’s ad targeting tools.


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Facebook Ad Manager has steadily gained ground as one of the most powerful advertising tools for small businesses and large corporations alike. But a series of landmark settlements is reigning in that power a bit- particularly in the areas of housing, credit, and employment ads.

While these changes will likely do little to quell the tool’s dominance, it will shed light on practices that unintentionally contributed to systemic discrimination. And if you regularly use Facebook as a platform to advertise jobs, the new rules of engagement will impact the way you appear on the site.

“Unfairly Locked Out of Opportunities”

As an example, a September 2018 grievance was filed with the Equal Employment and Opportunity Council, “alleging Facebook had unlawfully discriminated based on gender and age by targeting job ads on Facebook to younger, male Facebook users and excluding older people, women, and nonbinary users from receiving the job ads.” CWA representative Sara Steffens said to the ACLU of these practices, “our campaign seeks justice for workers who have been unfairly locked out of opportunities by employers who deny their ads to older workers or women […] all workers deserve a fair chance to get a good job.” And while it’s likely that these efforts to target ads were well-intentioned, designed to bring ideal candidates to the forefront, the unintended result was the systematic exclusion of viable workers.

Sandberg’s Settlement Response

In a blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg briefed readers on the results of the settlement, first praising the company for its ability to democratize advertising and ad targeting in ways that would have previously been out of reach to many. Then, turning to the case at hand, she acknowledged that this power needed to be examined more closely:

Our job is to make sure that these benefits continue while also making sure that our ad tools aren’t misused. There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads.

Facebook’s awareness of what they term “misuse” came through a series of cases filed as early as late 2016 from groups including the ACLU, the Communications Workers of America, fair housing and civil rights organizations, and individual jobseekers and consumers. Their shared grievance: ad targeting practices were allowing service providers and employers to discriminate by eliminating certain protected classes—identified by race, age, ability, and gender— from seeing their ads.

Among the concrete measures that Facebook is putting in place to prevent further discrimination by ad targeting:

  • “Facebook will no longer allow housing, employment, or credit ads that target people by age, gender, or zip code.”
  • Other targeting options that limit the view of these ads by race, ethnicity, or other legally protected classes including national origin and sexual orientation, will be limited.
  • A separate ad manager hub will debut for ads falling into this category, with fewer targeting options—therefore widening the pool of eligible ad viewers.

Additional actions:

  • Implementing a system of automated and human review mechanisms, to catch ads that aren’t already certified as ads in these categories
  • Requiring all advertisers creating ads in these categories to certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws, and providing supplemental education on those laws and their impact
  • Studying the potential for unintended or implicit bias in algorithmic modeling on Facebook as a platform

In the online statement, Sandberg voices an understanding for the systemic impact of decisions like this, and pledges that Facebook will take a number of actions to ensure its tools can not be used to further this problem. She said, “housing, employment, and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit. They should never be used to exclude or harm people.”

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