Facebook takes blow from Congress over ads feature said to break federal law

If Facebook had more diversity in its workforce and management, it might not have gone ahead with a feature that allows advertisers to exclude groups based on “ethnic affinity,” the Congressional Black Caucus has suggested.

On Oct. 28, ProPublica revealed that the social media giant offered a feature allowing advertisers to target or exclude groups of people based on what Facebook has determined to be their “ethnic affinity.”

“Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment,” the ProPublica article said.

The news outlet said that using the social network’s self-service ad portal, it bought a housing-related ad that excluded users with African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic “ethnic affinities” in the U.S.

The caucus, made up of African-American Congresspeople and Senators, on Nov. 1 sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, citing “deep concerns” that the “ethnic affinity” feature let advertisers exclude “specific racial and ethnic groups.”

“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,” the letter said.

The caucus said it sincerely hoped Facebook had created the feature for the sake of innovation and efficiency, rather than for dividing communities or breaking federal civil rights law.

While the elected officials were at it, they gave Facebook a smack for the makeup of its workforce and management. “With 2 percent of Facebook’s U.S. employees being African American, and 4 percent Hispanic, we remain convinced that a stronger commitment to diversifying the ranks of your company, especially in senior management positions to better reflect the diversity of your 1.7 billion monthly users will help in ensuring that innovative and inclusive platforms continue to be promoted by your company.”  (Facebook on Nov. 2 said it had about 1.8 billion monthly users as of September.)

More diversity, the caucus said, would also help nip in the bud any “programs or policies that are potentially violative of civil rights laws or racially insensitive.”

Civil rights lawyer John Relman told ProPublica the Facebook feature was “horrifying” and “massively illegal.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the firm had heard from groups and policy makers who had concerns about the issue. “We are listening and working to better understand these concerns,” the spokesperson said.

Facebook’s “head of multicultural” Christian Martinez wrote in a press release Oct. 28 that the firm “gives advertisers the ability to reach people whose likes and other activity on Facebook suggest they’re interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities — African American, Hispanic American and Asian American.

“For example, a nonprofit that’s hosting a career fair for the Hispanic community can use Facebook ads to reach people who have an interest in that community. And a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products.”

In fact, the exclusion of certain ethnic groups from advertising that’s not aimed at them can actually protect the sensibilities of those excluded, Martinez said.

“That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant — this is a process known in the ad industry as ‘exclusion targeting.’ This prevents audiences for community-specific ads from seeing a generic ad targeted to a large group and helps avoid the offensive outcome that traditional advertising can often create for people in the minority.”

Martinez explained that “negative exclusion” also exists, “for example, an apartment building that won’t rent to black people or an employer that only hires men.” Facebook’s policies bar that kind of advertising and “will take aggressive enforcement action” if it learns of any, he said.

He did note that the company isn’t really in a position to identify ads involving negative exclusion, and assured readers that “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.”


Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Kirstina Sangsahachart/ Daily News)


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  • will moody

    When did FB get into the housing market?

  • tommariner

    Facebook — hang on for five more days! Then we have elections, after which it will no longer be imperative we divide our country into little groups that need protection — if you just vote for the party (saying they are) doing the protection.

    Until the next election rolls around, and those being “protected” notice nothing good has happened to them.

    How about “help me get qualified for a job, make sure we aren’t driving businesses that provide the jobs out of the country, and get the heck out of my way!”