Facebook stops advertisers illegally discriminating by race

Social network will still allow targeting based on ‘ethnic affinity’ of users in domains other than housing, employment and credit

Facebook has updated its advertising policies to ban discrimination based on a number of personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age.

Accompanying the new policies is a section aimed at educating advertisers about the extent to which ad targeting is allowed on the social network, both in terms of Facebook’s own policies and applicable national laws.

Enforcing the rules may be tricky, but Facebook plans to use new technology “that leverages machine learning” to identify the most egregious offenders – those that “offer housing, employment or credit opportunities” in a discriminatory manner.

The move follows accusations that the social network offered tools that allow advertisers to break American anti-discrimination laws, through an ad-targeting feature described as “ethnic affinity” profiling.

First highlighted in March 2016, the affinity targeting was intended to allow advertisers to target messages to specific audiences without getting into the murky ground of racial profiling. Facebook describes the feature as grouping people not by “their genetic makeup, but their affinity to the cultures they are interested in”. That way, a white Facebook user who has expressed interest in hip-hop music, the TV channel BET, and the the films of Spike Lee might be put in the “African-American” affinity group.

Although Facebook goes to great lengths to emphasise that the feature, which is still available for advertisers, is not the same as racial profiling, a second wave of negative publicity arrived in October 2016, when ProPublica reported that the affinity targeting could be used to exclude particular groups from advertising for home sales. That is explicitly banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, due to America’s long history of segregation.

Now, if Facebook’s tools think that a user is attempting to implement the “multicultural advertising segments” targeting unlawfully, it will force them to undergo manual review, with a Facebook employee explicitly checking for compliance. And for housing, employment and credit adverts which are targeted in other ways, the company is asking advertisers to explicitly certify their compliance with relevant laws.

“Several organisations have asked us to work with them to help identify ways that our advertising technology could be used to promote inclusion and opportunity for underserved communities, while also protecting against discriminatory uses,” Facebook said in a blogpost. “We believe in the power of our advertising products to create opportunities for people from all backgrounds, so we are committed to working with these groups toward that goal.”


Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

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