Facebook to overhaul ad targeting to prevent discrimination

The company is also paying about $5 million to cover plaintiffs’ legal fees and other costs

In this April 10, 2018, file photo Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg adjusts his tie as he arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington. Earlier this month Zuckerberg announced a new privacy-focused vision for the company to focus on messaging instead of more public sharing, but he stayed mum on overhauling Facebook privacy practices in its core business. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Facebook will overhaul its ad-targeting systems to prevent discrimination in housing, credit and employment ads as part of a legal settlement.

For the social network, that’s one major legal problem down, several to go, including government investigations in the U.S. and Europe over its data and privacy practices.

The changes to Facebook’s advertising methods —which generate most of the company’s enormous profits — are unprecedented. The social network says it will no longer allow housing, employment or credit ads that target people by age, gender or zip code.

Facebook will also limit other targeting options so these ads don’t exclude people on the basis of race, ethnicity and other legally protected categories in the U.S., including national origin and sexual orientation.

The social media company is also paying about $5 million to cover plaintiffs’ legal fees and other costs.

READ MORE: Facebook says no one flagged NZ mosque shooting livestream

Facebook and the plaintiffs — a group including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Fair Housing Alliance and others — called the settlement “historic.” It took 18 months to hammer out. The company still faces an administrative complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in August over the housing ads issue.

What’s not yet clear is how well the safeguards will work. Facebook has been working to address a slew of social consequences related to its platform, with varying degrees of success.

Last week, it scrambled to remove graphic video filmed by a gunman in the New Zealand mosque shootings, but the footage remained available for hours on its site and elsewhere on social media.

Earlier in March, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a new “privacy-focused vision” for the company to focus on messaging instead of more public sharing — but he stayed mum on overhauling Facebook’s privacy practices in its core business.

Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU and the group’s lead attorney on its suit, praised the settlement as “sweeping” and said she expects it to have ripple effects through the tech industry.

Facebook agreed to let the groups test its ad systems to ensure they don’t enable discrimination. The company also agreed to meet with the groups every six months over the next three years and is building a tool to let anyone search housing-related ads in the U.S. targeted to different areas across the country.

Discrimination hasn’t been Facebook’s only problem with ad targeting. It has taken fire for allowing advertisers to target groups of people identified as “Jew-haters” and Nazi sympathizers. It’s also still dealing with the fallout from the 2016 election, when, among other things, Facebook allowed fake Russian accounts to buy ads targeting U.S. users to stir up political divisions.

One of the complaints said that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act because its targeting systems allow advertisers to exclude certain audiences, such as families with young children or disabled people, from seeing housing ads. Others alleged job discrimination, with ads being shown to men but not women in traditionally male-dominated fields, or only to younger users.

As part of the changes, advertisers who want to run housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target people by age, gender or zip code. Facebook will also limit the targeting categories available for such ads. For example, such advertisers wouldn’t be able to exclude groups such as “soccer moms” or people who joined a group on black hair care.

Endlessly customizable ad targeting is Facebook’s bread and butter. The ads users see can be tailored to the most granular details — not just where people live and what websites they visited recently, but whether they’ve gotten engaged in the past six months or share characteristics with people who have recently bought a BMW, even if they have never expressed interest in doing so themselves. It’s how the company made $56 billion in revenue last year.

“There is a lot of pressure on Facebook and its ability to target ads,” said eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson. “And a lot of scrutiny on what it should and shouldn’t be able to do. This is just one more example of that.”

Last year, amid concerns over how it collects user data and in preparation for tighter privacy regulation in Europe, Facebook shut down an advertising product that allowed marketers to use data from people’s offline lives to target them on Facebook.

Williamson said this caused some advertisers to change their plans. While Facebook’s ad revenue has not suffered so far, uncertainty over how well businesses will be able to target users in the future could spook advertisers.

“They will start to think, ‘are there any other types of targeting that are at risk?’” she said.

In a brief interview with The Associated Press, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg declined to say whether the changes will hurt the company’s advertising revenue. The most important thing, she said, was to protect Facebook’s users from discrimination.

“Today’s changes mark an important step in our broader effort to prevent discrimination and promote fairness and inclusion on Facebook,” she said in a blog post on Tuesday. “But our work is far from over.”

Barbara Ortutay, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The track washrooms will be opened up again next year in May. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Toilets, sinks torn off, graffiti on walls at the Burns Lake track washroom

“Seems to happen once or twice a year” says the Village CAO on the vandalized track washroom

FILE - Nathan Cullen speaks to media in Smithers, B.C., Friday, February 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, Cullen apologize for Stikine candidate’s comments about Haida candidate

Nathan Cullen had made insensitive comments about Roy Jones Jr. Cheexial

The pile burning will occur to the south of François Lake. (Submitted/Lakes District News)
Pile burning and rehab work on three areas south of François Lake

Smoke might be visible for Burns Lake and neighboring areas

Participants earlier this year in March for Lakes Loppet at the ski club. (Lakes District News file photo)
How is Omineca Ski Club prepping for this ski season?

Covid restrictions, social distancing but ski season to continue

FOR WEB ONLY. (Lakes District News file photo)
Question Bill C-7, says this reader

Editor: Have you ever felt strongly convicted about something one day and… Continue reading

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

RCMP stock photo (Black Press)
Charges laid against Prince George man, 39, in drug trafficking probe

Tyler Aaron Gelowitz is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 18

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

Most Read