Facebook Settles Civil Rights Complaints, Suits, Related to Ad Platform

Facebook has settled complaints and lawsuits with the ACLU, Communications Workers of America, and the National Fair Housing Alliance over allegations that its paid ad platform allowed for discrimination in employment, housing, and credit advertising.

In addition to changes in the platform, Facebook has also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to cover "legal fees and costs and to the individual job seekers and consumers who allege that they were denied opportunities by discrimination on Facebook’s ad platform," according to CWA. There is a monitoring period for the settlement that extends through 2022.

Facebook had also been pressed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which it conceded the groups had raised "valid concerns about this issue," as have members of Congress.

Facebook engaged in a civil rights audit, which informed its decision on how to proceed.

Related: Groups Say Facebook Civil Rights Audit Needs Audit

Facebook wasn't exactly conceding the points, with COO Sheryl Sandberg blogging that its policies "already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate." Instead, she said, it would "do better."

Better translated to, specifically, according to Sandberg:

1. "Anyone who wants to run housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender or zip code."

2. "Advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities will have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall. Multicultural affinity targeting will continue to be unavailable for these ads. Additionally, any detailed targeting option describing or appearing to relate to protected classes will also be unavailable.

3. "We’re building a tool so you can search for and view all current housing ads in the U.S. targeted to different places across the country, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you."

"Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit," said Sandberg. "They should never be used to exclude or harm people. Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook because inclusivity is a core value for our company."

Related: Dems Hammer Facebook Over Alleged Openness of Closed

The ACLU put a little finer point on the settlement terms, which it said included that Facebook:

1. "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

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

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

4. "Study the potential for unintended biases in algorithmic modeling on Facebook

4. "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."

The settlement resolves a CWA EEOC complaint based on age and gender, but does not resolve a pending EEOC complaint against more than 70 employers who allegedly used Facebook’s ad platform to "exclude older workers or women (or both) from receiving their job ads." It also does not affect a class action suit CWA and its members filed against hundreds of employers who used Facebook’s ad platform to, allegedly, exclude older workers from job ads, including T-Mobile and Amazon," according to CWA.

It does resolve a November 2016 lawsuit charging race and national origin discrimination in ads on Facebook (Mobley v. Facebook) and a March 2018 lawsuit filed by NFHA and regional housing groups "challenging landlords’ use of Facebook to send housing ads that exclude families with children, women, and other protected groups."

“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, following the settlement. “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.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.