Facebook disables ethnic exclusion tool for housing, employment, and credit ads

Facebook will no longer allow marketers to use its “ethnic affinity” targeting option for ads pertaining to housing, employment, or credit.

The past several weeks have seen the company come under immense pressure following the release of a report by non-profit news organization PropPublica claiming the tool is unlawful. Shortly after the article’s publication Facebook was hit with a lawsuit that alleged the feature violates both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, popularly known as the Fair Housing Act.

Ethnic affinity is a targeting option within Facebook’s ad creation tool, which allows marketers to exclude certain users whose Facebook activities mirror certain target demographics, including African Americans, Asian Americans, or Hispanics — from their promos on the social network.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws employers from discriminating against prospective employees as part of the hiring process based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to do the same in regards to housing advertisements.

Despite previously defending the ethnic affinity option as a “common practice” within the ad industry, it seems Facebook has bowed to public pressure. The announcement to indefinitely stop ethnic exclusion from select ads was made in a blog post authored by the company’s VP, U.S. Public Policy, and Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan.

“We will disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment, or credit,” writes Egan. “There are many non-discriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads.”

Seeing as the lawsuit is ongoing, Digital Trends reached out to Facebook for an update regarding its stance on the complaint. The company says its decision was not influenced by the lawsuit, which it claims is without merit, and that the firm is still committed to defending itself against the complaint. Facebook also reiterated that its ethnic affinity tool is intended to promote multicultural marketing that helps people see content that is relevant to the “cultural communities they are interested in.”

It added: “Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law.”

Facebook told us it is moving the ethnic affinity clusters from the “demographics” section to the “behaviors” section within its targeting tool.

In her blog post Egan claimed Facebook is building tools to detect and automatically disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for certain types of ads. The company met with a number of important leaders in its efforts to update its advertising policies, including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Illinois and the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-California and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Egan also claims Facebook engaged in “constructive dialogue” with several advocacy groups. These include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Brookings Institution, and Upturn.