Facebook to stop racial targeting of certain ads on site

Facebook announced advertisers on the site will no longer be allowed to exclude certain ethnic and racial groups from seeing their ads.

Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

Facebook announced that it will no longer allow its advertisers to exclude specific ethnic or racial groups from receiving certain ads on the site. The social networking site had come under fire for a practice that many viewed as discriminatory. 

In a blog post Friday, Erin Egan, vice president of Facebook U.S. public policy and the company’s chief privacy officer, affirmed that advertisers will no longer be able to target or exclude different groups from ads for credit, employment, or housing. 

Egan acknowledged that while the company’s “ethnic affinity” marketing service was created so that brands could reach more “multicultural audiences with more relevant advertising,” concerns from civil rights leaders and site users have caused the company to reassess its approach to ads. 

“Recently, policymakers and civil rights leaders have expressed concerns that advertisers could misuse some aspects of our affinity marketing segments. Specifically, they’ve raised the possibility that some advertisers might use these segments to run ads that discriminate against people, particularly in areas where certain groups have historically faced discrimination — housing, employment and the extension of credit,” Egan wrote. “We take these issues seriously. Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.”

Just last week, three users filed a lawsuit alleging that Facebook’s advertising practice violates the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

ProPublica was the first outlet to shed a light on the company’s advertising policies at the end of last month. 

The nonprofit news outlet tested the system by purchasing an ad using tools on Facebook to target members who were house hunting but exclude anyone with an “Ethnic Affinity” of African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.

“When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and 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,’” ProPublica’s Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr. wrote.

Moving forward, Facebook said it will build tools to “detect and automatically disable” this ethnic affinity marketing tool for ads offering housing, employment, or credit. Egan stressed that “there are many non-discriminatory uses” of the ethnic affinity tool but that the company made the call to “best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads.”

Beyond this, the company is updating its advertising policy guidelines that will require advertisers to declare they will not engage with discriminatory advertising on the site. The company will give these advertisers “educational materials” that will help them “understand their obligations” when placing ads for these services.

“We are making these changes to deter discrimination and strengthen our ability to enforce our policies,” she added. “We look forward to finding additional ways to combat discrimination, while increasing opportunity, and to continuing our dialogue with policymakers and civil rights leaders about these important issues.”

  • Brian Mastroianni On Twitter»

    Brian Mastroianni covers science and technology for CBSNews.com