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Facebook lets advertisers exclude racial groups

USA TODAY USA TODAY 28/10/2016 Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook advertisers can exclude specific racial and ethnic groups in potential violation of federal anti-discrimination housing laws, according to a Pro Publica report.

Using a designation called "Ethnic Affinities," Facebook lets advertisers target and exclude certain groups of Facebook users. Pro Publica placed a housing-related ad that excluded African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. 

Facebook says it bans advertisers from using "Ethnic Affinities" to discriminate against racial or ethnic groups. The multicultural targeting is designed to make advertising more relevant and inclusive to diverse communities, Christian Martinez, head of multicultural at Facebook, said in a blog post.

"Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law," Martinez wrote. "If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action. We also realize that, as a website, we often aren’t in a position to know the details of an apartment rental or job application — and so we will also remove an ad from our platform if the government agency responsible for enforcing discrimination laws tells us that the ad reflects illegal discrimination."

Facebook generates nearly all of its revenue from advertising. Key to its success: letting advertisers target very specific audiences by tapping into the extraordinary amount of data Facebook collects on its 1.71 billion users which it supplements with information purchased from data brokers. Facebook says its users cannot identify their race or ethnicity on Facebook. Affinity targeting is based on interests they have declared or Facebook pages they have liked.

Martinez says multicultural marketing is more inclusive. Ads targeted to the majority make him feel marginalized, he said.

"Advertising should empower you to learn about things that are relevant to you, that speak to you, that reflect you and your community. It’s also empowering to see content that validates your community as one worth reaching," Martinez wrote.

The problem: Facebook’s advertising system not only allows marketers to choose who they want to see their ads, it also lets them choose who they don't want to see their ads.

Multicultural targeting of ads can help marketers reach demographics most interested in certain products or services, said Joseph Turow, a professor who researches Internet marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

"But it's really tough to find bad actors, especially when you are allowing millions of people to buy their own ads on Facebook," Turow said.

Facebook says it's is not alone in the industry in offering multicultural micro-targeting to advertisers.

Rigel Oliveri, a professor of law at the University of Missouri who researches fair housing and online advertising, says the practice raises "serious legal problems" when it comes to housing.

"There's a part of the Fair Housing Act that makes it illegal to have discriminatory advertising. That part applies to both the person taking out the ad and also the publisher of that ad," Oliveri said.

Online services such as Craigslist have successfully argued they are legally protected by the Communications Decency Act against liability for discriminatory housing ads posted by users. But, Oliveri said, "what Facebook is doing here is different."

"It's not just hosting the ad. It's encouraging and providing the advertisers with the ability to exclude people based on their race and ethnicity," she said.

University of Connecticut law professor Jon Bauer says if Facebook allows housing ads to be targeted in a way that excludes racial and ethnic groups, "they are clearly violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968." The same would hold true for other areas covered by civil rights legislation such as employment, Bauer said.

According to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it's illegal "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."

Pro Publica said when it showed Facebook's "Ethnic Affinity" option to civil rights lawyer John Relman, he said: "This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find."

The report comes at a sensitive time for Facebook which, like other major Silicon Valley technology companies, is wrestling with its lack of diversity.

Hispanics represent 4% and African Americans 2% of Facebook's U.S. workers, percentages that have not budged since 2014 and that fall below other industries' averages. Facebook has made slightly more progress on gender diversity, yet nearly seven out of 10 employees around the globe are men. 

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