Facebook puts limits on ethnic ad-targeting after outcry

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The platform will build an automated system to eliminate discriminating ads for housing, employment or credit.

On Friday, Facebook announced it would no longer permit advertisers to use an ad-targeting feature that excludes groups based on race, at least for housing, employment or credit ads.

In a blog post, Erin Egan, VP of US public policy and chief privacy officer at Facebook, wrote that in the coming months, Facebook will build an automated system that will detect and disable discriminating ads. Policymakers and civil rights leaders had expressed concerns this week that advertisers could "misuse some aspects of our affinity marketing segments."

"They’ve raised the possibility that some advertisers might use these segments to run ads that discriminate against people," she wrote, "particularly in areas where certain groups have historically faced discrimination—housing, employment and the extension of credit."

The feature in question, "Ethnic Affinities," had allowed advertisers to exclude certain races from seeing ads, presumably as a means to reaching only relevant groups. While Facebook doesn’t ask members about their race, Facebook has been assigning "Ethnic Affinities" to users over the past two years based on the pages and posts they like and follow.

The practice came under scrutiny in October when ProPublica pointed out that the feature could be used to exclude people of specific races or gender from seeing ads for housing, employment or credit, which is prohibited by federal law. To demonstrate, the publication purchase a housing ad that excluded those with an "affinity" for three races—African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

"This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find," lawyer John Relman told ProPublica at the time.

Since then, four members of Congress have written Facebook demanding they cease the practice, and a group of users filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the act violates the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the blog post, Egan states that Facebook has been meeting with leaders, including New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois and the Congressional Black Caucus, to determine the right course of action going forward.

Facebook is also updating its "Advertising Policies" to be more "explicit and require advertisers to affirm that they will not engaging in discriminatory advertising on Facebook."

"We are making these changes to deter discrimination and strengthen our ability to enforce our policies," wrote Egan. "We look forward to finding additional ways to combat discrimination, while increasing opportunity, and to continuing our dialogue with policymakers and civil rights leaders about these important issues."

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