Spurred by a federal discrimination lawsuit, Facebook is cleaning up ads

Facebook is once again in hot water for its ad system — and this time the network is responding by removing more than 5,000 ad-targeting options. After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)  filed a complaint against the social media company for allowing what it says are discriminatory ads, the company says it is limiting targeting options and requiring advertisers to agree to a non-discrimination policy. The complaint brings government involvement to ongoing scrutiny over ad targeting options on the network.

Housing ads fall under stricter regulations — under U.S. law, ads for housing cannot discriminate based on factors like race, sex, religion, and disability among others. The complaint says that Facebook’s advertising tool allows advertisers to restrict who sees the ad “based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.” The complaint goes on to claim that Facebook’s ad tools will even suggest discriminatory ad targeting options.

While the HUD charges are new, the claims are not. Non-profit investigative group ProPublica first suggested Facebook wasn’t following the rules for housing ads in 2016, and a lawsuit soon followed. Facebook made some changes, but the organization published another report a year later that suggested the social network hadn’t done enough.

According to the latest complaints, Facebook’s ad tool still allows housing ads to target specific genders. The ability to target ads to a user’s interests also creates a sticking point for housing ads, since the complaint found that interest categories like “assistance dog, mobility scooter, accessibility, or deaf culture” could still be included in the ads.

Just days after the complaint was filed, Facebook shared that it will be removing 5,000 options for creating targeted ads. “While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimizing the risk of abuse is more important,” the announcement says. “This includes limiting the ability for advertisers to exclude audiences that relate to attributes such as ethnicity or religion.”

Facebook’s targeted advertising is largely responsible for the company’s financial success, and also for complaints about privacy on the network. The ad tools are designed to allow businesses to deliver the ad only to those that are likely to make a purchase. For example, an ad for wedding photography can be targeted only to Facebook users that list “engaged” as their relationship status. Besides creating more effective ads for businesses, the tools help Facebook users see more relevant ads.

Finding where to draw the line within that ad platform is proving troublesome for the network, however. While marketing products like makeup or tampons to women makes sense, marketing a housing ad only to one gender is against the law. The automation behind the ad system can also be difficult to catch such discrimination on — as became evident when Facebook apologized when it realized that allowing users to fill in anything under interests on their profiles allowed ads to be targeted to “jew haters.”

Facebook says discrimination has no place on the network and the company has been strengthening its policies. “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson told Axios. “Over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court, and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

Updated on Aug. 23 to include Facebook’s removal of more than 5,000 ad targeting options.

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