Facebook Updates Anti-Discrimination Policies for Advertisers After Scrutiny of Ethnic Targeting

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Facebook said it is increasing its efforts to prevent ethnic discrimination in housing and other ads.
Facebook said it is increasing its efforts to prevent ethnic discrimination in housing and other ads. Credit: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
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Facebook is beefing up its anti-discrimination protocols after concerns were raised about targeting technology that could unfairly impact certain races and ethnicities.

Last month, a Pro Publica report shined a spotlight on Facebook's "ethnic affinity" targeting, which lets advertisers choose which groups toward which they direct their messages. Pro Publica argued that excluding certain groups could lead to discrimination in ads for housing, employment and other categories, which would be illegal.

On Friday, Facebook said it had met with groups including the NAACP and the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, concerned by the potential for inappropriate use of its targeting tools, and is implementing changes.

"We take these issues seriously," said Erin Egan, Facebook's vp of U.S. public policy and Chief Privacy Officer, in a statement released on Friday. "Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook."

To see whether Facebook targeting could be used to discriminate, Pro Publica had built an event ad for a housing meeting and excluded African Americans, Hispanics and Asians from seeing it.

Or rather, it excluded Facebook's "ethnic affinity" groups corresponding to African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Facebook does not have specific ethnic targeting definitively identifying a person as a member of a race or culture, but allows targeting based on the interests users seem to share with certain groups. The company says marketers might legitimately use targeting, including exclusionary targeting, to tailor ads for certain audiences.

Facebook responded to the Pro Publica report partly by saying it was committed to enabling communication that speaks to different cultures, featuring languages and faces that reflect users' own communities.

The issue of exclusionary targeting gets dicey, however, when talking about housing, employment and financial ads.

On that front, Facebook pointed out that the Pro Publica ad was an "event" post, not an actual ad for housing, and claimed that it would have been flagged by systems already in place to detect discrimination if it were a housing ad.

Even still, on Friday, Facebook said it would beef up protocols to ensure that advertisers are aware of the law and understand when targeting by ethnic attributes is appropriate and when it's not.

The new protocols will disable ethnic affinity targeting on housing, employment and credit ads. Facebook also said it would focus on educating advertisers about how its targeting tools should be used going forward.