On Tuesday, Facebook reached a historic settlement with civil rights groups that had accused the company of allowing advertisers to unlawfully discriminate against minorities, women, and the elderly by using the platform’s ad-targeting technology to exclude them from seeing ads for housing, jobs, and credit—three areas with legal protections for groups that historically have been disenfranchised.
After fighting back against the accusations for years, Facebook announced it will make significant changes to its platform so that advertisers can no longer target, or exclude based on characteristics like gender or race. This is significant because Facebook’s massive revenue primarily comes from ads, which are so lucrative because of the platform's microtargeting capabilities. But when a company or advertiser shows an ad only to certain people—say, people under the age of 55, as Facebook allegedly did when it placed ads on its own site for jobs at Facebook—that excludes a protected class of workers. And that’s illegal under federal law.
“It is a game-changer,” says Lisa Rice, the executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, whose lawsuit against Facebook was among those settled Tuesday. “The settlement positions Facebook to be a pacesetter and a leader on civil rights issues in the tech field.”
The settlement resolves five separate cases that had been brought against Facebook over discriminatory advertising since 2016, following a ProPublica investigation that revealed Facebook let advertisers choose to hide their ads from blacks, Hispanics, or people of other “ethnic affinities.” Lawsuits soon followed. The most recent case was an EEOC complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union in September, alleging that Facebook allowed job ads to discriminate against women.
As part of the agreement, Facebook will build a designated portal for advertisers to create housing, employment, and credit ads, which will not allow targeting users by age, gender, zip code, or other categories covered by antidiscrimination laws. Microtargeting options that appear to relate to these protected categories will be off-limits as well, and Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences tool will also incorporate these restrictions. Any advertiser that wants to run an ad on Facebook will be required to indicate if their ad is related to one of these three things.