Facebook signs pact with Washington state to end discriminatory ad practices

An example of Facebook’s ad targeting. (Image courtesy the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.)

Facebook now will be bound by law to end the practice of allowing third-party advertisers to exclude ads from people based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and other protected groups, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office announced this week.

Facebook confirmed the agreement, and said the changes had been underway for more than  a year, according to Reuters.

“We’ve removed thousands of categories related to potentially sensitive personal attributes — like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion — from our exclusion targeting tools,” the company told the news agency.

The changes followed a 2016 expose by the news site Pro Publica on how Facebook’s ad targeting tools allowed third-party advertisers to exclude people who fell into certain categories, such as African American, Asian American and Hispanic. Caucasians were not a group that could be excluded, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

A year after the initial report, Pro Publica conducted a follow-up, and they were still able to buy advertising that discriminated based on race, and they were able to filter out users with disabilities.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office began an investigation to see if the company had violated the state Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination after the article in Pro Publica was released.

Investigators in the Attorney General’s Office, posing as a restaurant, bought ads that excluded African-American, Asian-American and Latinx ethnic affinity groups that were approved by Facebook.

“Facebook’s advertising platform allowed unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability and religion,” said Ferguson, in a prepared statement. “That’s wrong, illegal, and unfair.”

Other groups also were trying to stop the practice. In March, the National Fair Housing Alliance and other housing groups sued Facebook in federal court, claiming that the practice allowed landlords and real-estate brokers to discriminate based on family status and gender, according to Bloomberg.

According to the legally binding agreement with Washington state:

  • Facebook will no longer provide advertisers with options to exclude ethnic groups from advertisements for housing, credit, employment ads, insurance and businesses open to the public..
  • Facebook will no longer provide advertisers with tools to discriminate based on race, creed, color, national origin, veteran or military status, sexual orientation and disability status. These exclusion options will not be present on any advertisement for employment, housing, credit, insurance or other public businesses.

The changes will be applied nationwide. Facebook also agreed to pay the state $90,000 in costs and fees.

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