Facebook Disables Targeting Options for Housing Ads

March 20, 2019

Facebook announced Tuesday that it will no longer allow advertisers in certain categories such as housing to target their messages to people based on race, gender, or age groups. The social network has been under fire in the last year, facing accusations that it enables discrimination by letting advertisers target such demographics for ads on housing, jobs, and credit. Facebook removed many ad targeting options last August after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a formal complaint.

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But going a step further, Facebook will now require advertisers in the areas of housing, employment, and credit to use a separate portal to serve up their ads. The portal will not include gender, age, race, ethnicity, or religion as ad targeting options. Advertisers in other topic areas will continue to be able to target ads based on age and gender. Facebook said it is also removing the ability to target ads based on thousands of so-called “interest segments,” such as “stay-at-home mothers” or “corporate mothers.”

The social media giant’s announcement comes as part of a settlement with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Communications Workers of America, which sued Facebook last year over its ad targeting features. Facebook has also agreed to pay about $5 million to settle five lawsuits brought by these groups. “We think this settlement is historic and will go a long way toward making sure that these types of discriminatory practices can’t happen,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told The New York Times.

Pauline Kim, a professor of employment law at Washington University in St. Louis, told The New York Times that Facebook’s latest move is an important step, but there’s still reason for concern. “Taking the explicit ability to discriminate off the table is an important first step, but I don’t think it solves the problem of the potential for biased serving of ads,” Kim says. For example, in an employment-related ad, Facebook’s algorithms could still show the ad primarily to men if it determined that men were more likely to click on it. “It’s within the realm of possibility, depending on how the algorithm is constructed,” Kim says. “You could end up serving ads, inadvertently, to biased audiences.”

Sandberg says the company is committed to working with other groups and parties to find additional ways to stop discrimination within its ad platform, including studying the algorithms’ effects on Facebook ads. “This is going to have a very broad reach,” Lisa Rice, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance, told the Los Angeles Times about Facebook’s announcement. “Technology and how data is used is really the new civil rights frontier.”

Federal housing laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, and family status. Facebook said its new platform will also prevent advertisers from discriminating based on sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, and other characteristics that are covered by state and local civil rights laws, the Los Angeles Times reports.