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Facebook to Temporarily Block Advertisers From Excluding Audiences by Race

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, discusses advertising practices by both Facebook, a popular social networking site, and some advertisers using the site. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Julia Angwin, ProPublica

Facebook said it would temporarily stop advertisers from being able to exclude viewers by race while it studies the use of its ad targeting system.

“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Facebook Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus.

ProPublica disclosed last week that Facebook was still allowing advertisers to buy housing ads that excluded audiences by race, despite its promises earlier this year to reject such ads. ProPublica also found that Facebook was not asking housing advertisers that blocked other sensitive audience categories — by religion, gender, or disability — to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.

Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it’s illegal to “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

In her letter, Sandberg said the company will examine how advertisers are using its exclusion tool — “focusing particularly on potentially sensitive segments” such as ads that exclude LGBTQ communities or people with disabilities. “During this review, no advertisers will be able to create ads that exclude multicultural affinity groups,” Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman said in an e-mailed statement.

Goldman said the results of the audit would be shared with “groups focused on discrimination in ads,” and that Facebook would work with them to identify further improvements and publish the steps it will take.

Sandberg’s letter to the Congressional Black Caucus is the outgrowth of a dialogue that has been ongoing since last year when ProPublica published its first article revealing Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude people with an “ethnic affinity” for various minority groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, from viewing their ads.

At that time, four members of the Congressional Black Caucus reached out to Facebook for an explanation. “This is in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and it is our strong desire to see Facebook address this issue immediately,” wrote the lawmakers.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces the nation’s fair housing laws, opened an inquiry into Facebook’s practices.

But in February, Facebook said it had solved the problem — by building an algorithm that would allow it to spot and reject housing, employment and credit ads that discriminated using racial categories. For audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with the law.

HUD closed its inquiry. But last week, ProPublica successfully purchased dozens of racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory ads for a fictional housing company advertising a rental. None of the ads were rejected and none required a self-certification. Facebook said it was a “technical failure” and vowed to fix the problem.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said that Facebook’s actions to disable the feature are “an appropriate action.” “When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed. When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated,” she said. “I will continue watching this issue very closely to ensure these issues do not raise again.”

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Chanson de Roland

The problem here not only for Facebook but Google, Instagram, Twitter, and all of their ilk is that their advertising derives much of its value from either distinguishing or permitting its customers to distinguish people into classes that permit marketers to maximize the impact and value of their respective advertising. Race is only one of those classifications. But race, sex, age, income, neighborhood, etc., are among the many classifications that marketers/advertisers use to fashion and distribute their ads to maximize the return on their ads and for other purposes, some of which may be illegal. But eliminating or even restraining such classifications diminishes Facebook and its ilk’s value to marketers. And to the extent that Facebook or any of its ilk does that, marketers will either pay less for ads on those services or not pay at all. So prohibiting invidious (which is a legal term of art that means discrimination that is actionable under civil rights law) or discrimination on other classifications is contrary to and is damaging to Facebook and its ilk’s business model, because classification and discrimination with greater effect than has ever before been possible is what their advertising is all about.

And no matter what Facebook does, marketers will be able to easily able to avoid it while continuing to discriminate as they please. First, on racial discrimination in housing, the law itself seems to create a loophole. The law, in its express language, only prohibits ads, statements, and/or notifications that indicate preferences or discrimination. But one could sail an aircraft carrier through that loophole by simply using ads, which are invidious in their discrimination or not, by fashioning and/or distributing ads based on some proxy for the classification where one wishes to discriminate and plausibly say that one is using that proxy or those proxies for some rational business purpose. And computer algorithms are likely to be particularly useless at preventing such sophisticated discrimination.

Which brings me to the other intractable problem, that of using proxies to discriminate. I could devise highly accurate and plausible proxies for almost any classification, invidious or not, of discrimination. And the non-invidious discrimination will most likely be legal, even if detected and provable. So it will almost certainly be easy for discriminators to continue to discriminate, even for invidious discrimination, no matter what Facebook or its ilk do to prevent even invidious discrimination.

Yet, Facebook and its ilk should and must make the best practical effort they can to eliminate invidious discrimination, for the law requires that they do.


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