Facebook agrees to sweeping reforms to curb discriminatory ad targeting practices

A historic civil rights settlement was announced with Facebook last week following a variety of anti-discrimination legal actions. The settlement encompasses sweeping changes that the tech giant will make to its paid advertising platform to prevent discrimination in employment, housing, and credit advertising.

Since late 2016, Facebook has faced legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Outten & Golden LLP, the Communications Workers of America, job seekers and consumers, and fair housing and civil rights organizations. These cases collectively challenged Facebook’s paid ad platform, alleging that it enabled advertisers to exclude Facebook users from receiving job, housing, or credit ads based on race, sex, age, or other protected classes, in violation of federal and state civil rights laws. Under the settlement, Facebook will take proactive steps to prevent advertisers from engaging in unlawful discrimination when sending job, housing, or credit ads to users of Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger.

“As the internet — and platforms like Facebook — play an increasing role in connecting us all to information related to economic opportunities, it’s crucial that micro-targeting not be used to exclude groups that already face discrimination,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “We are pleased Facebook has agreed to take meaningful steps to ensure that discriminatory advertising practices are not given new life in the digital era, and we expect other tech companies to follow Facebook’s lead.”

Among the many reforms that apply to job, housing, and credit advertisements included in the settlement, Facebook has agreed it will:

  • Create a separate portal for such ads with a much more limited set of targeting options so that advertisers cannot target ads based on Facebook users’ age, gender, race, or categories that are associated with membership in protected groups, or based on zip code or a geographic area that is less than a 15-mile radius, and cannot consider users’ age, gender, or zip code when creating “Lookalike” audiences for advertisers

  • Implement a system of automated and human review to catch advertisements that aren’t correctly self-certified as these types of ads

  • Require all advertisers creating such ads to certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws, and provide education for advertisers on those laws

  • Study the potential for unintended biases in algorithmic modeling on Facebook

  • Meet with plaintiffs and their counsel every six months for three years to enable them to monitor the implementation of the reforms that Facebook is undertaking.

Details of the settlement can be found here.

The settlement was reached after more than 18 months of settlement negotiations and years of lawsuits and complaints that alleged discriminatory practices on Facebook’s ad platform. “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,” said Sara Steffens, secretary-treasurer of CWA. “All workers deserve a fair chance to get a good job.”


Facebook agrees to sweeping reforms to curb discriminatory ad targeting practices (CWA. Mar. 19, 2019)

Summary of settlements between civil rights advocates and Facebook (ACLU, Mar. 19, 2019)