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Job ads on Facebook raise concerns about age discrimination, report says

A new report is raising concerns about age discrimination in job advertisements posted on Facebook that use the social network's data tools to target specific age groups. According to a joint investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica, leading U.S. employers including Verizon, Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Target, and Facebook itself are among the companies that have placed recruitment ads targeting particular age groups on the social network. 

The report explains that employers are able to choose their audience while placing a job ad on Facebook. Based on "extensive data it collects about its members," Facebook can feed the ads only to selected viewers. For example, the report says Verizon targeted an ad about jobs in its financial planning unit to "users 25 to 36 years old who lived in the nation's capital, or had recently visited there, and had demonstrated an interest in finance."

Some experts cited in the report suggested the practice may be in conflict with the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits bias against people age 40 or older in hiring or employment.

"It's blatantly unlawful," Debra Katz, a Washington employment lawyer who represents victims of discrimination, told the news outlets.

But Facebook defended its advertising system, saying they "completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are discriminatory." 

"Facebook tailors our employment ads by audience," Rob Goldman, Facebook's Vice President of Ads, said in a written statement. "These individual ads are part of broader-based recruitment efforts designed to reach all ages and backgrounds."

While noting that federal law "forbids discrimination in employment based on age, race, gender or other legally protected characteristics," Goldman said that "simply showing certain job ads to different age groups on services like Facebook or Google may not in itself be discriminatory — just as it can be OK to run employment ads in magazines and on TV shows targeted at younger or older people."

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"Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work," Goldman concluded. 

The report notes that Facebook is not alone in providing these types of ad targeting options. 

"Other tech companies also offer employers opportunities to discriminate by age," reporters Julia Angwin, Noam Scheiber and Ariana Tobin write. "ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded audiences older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved. Google said it does not prevent advertisers from displaying ads based on the user's age. After being contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its system to prevent such targeting in employment ads."

Ad targeting tools on Facebook and Google have come under fire before.

In November 2016, Facebook announced it would no longer allow its advertisers to exclude specific ethnic or racial groups from receiving certain ads on the site. A ProPublica report exposed the practice that many viewed as discriminatory, especially when used to exclude minorities from ads for credit, employment, or housing.

And in September of this year, ProPublica again made headlines with a report on how Facebook allowing advertisers to target users who described themselves as "jew haters" or were interested in topics like "How to burn jews" or "History of why jews ruin the world." ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, tested the system by purchasing $30 worth of "promoted posts" that would appear in Facebook's newsfeed for a targeted audience. It said the entire process was approved within 15 minutes. 

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When ProPublica contacted Facebook about what it found, the company removed the anti-Semitic categories and said it would "explore ways to fix the problem." 

In a statement to CBS News, Facebook explained that those offensive ad categories were created automatically based off information users fill out in their Facebook profiles.  

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