Facebook Accused Of Allowing Discriminatory Ad Practices

Anyone with a Facebook account knows about the ads that are randomly dispersed throughout your timeline. Those ads are specifically tailored just for you. Feeling special? Well, it turns out, Facebook is being accused of doing more than just having a savvy marketing strategy.

The Facebook Ads that appear on your timeline are targeted to you according to your Facebook Profile information: age, location, education, relationship status and interests and are also based on information gathered from the types of posts you “like” and/or “share.” Advertisers have access to all of this information.

Marketers access and aggregate all of this data in order to reach out to the right audience for their particular product or service. This practice is called targeted marketing. It’s not illegal or unethical–it’s simply a very smart business practice.

Here is where things begin to get a bit sticky for Facebook.

Depending on their goals and the product that they are marketing, advertisers can set a targeting filter to select which group of people will see their ad. This makes it possible to focus on or target the people most likely to be interested in their product.

Still sounds like a legit business practice right?

Well, recently the the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has accused Facebook of allowing advertisers to intentionally exclude certain ethnicities from seeing certain housing ads.

Facebook has been accused of racial profiling.

The allegations came in response to recent scrutiny of this practice after a report emerged showing the social network offered advertisers ways of excluding specific races by checking a category it calls “Ethnic Affinity.” An investigation by Pro Publica showed that advertisers can use the self-service advertising portal and choose to exclude African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans from seeing their ads. This is a problem because:

“Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment.” ~Pro Publica

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (which was amended in 1988) does not allow advertisers

 “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.” Violators risk hefty fines.

When Pro Publica discovered this practice they consulted prominent civil rights attorney, John Relman who agreed with Pro Publica:

“This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find,” Relman said.

In an interview with NBC News the civil rights attorney explained it this way:

“To the extent that Facebook has created a filter that enables advertisers who use its platform to exclude users from seeing, reading, or hearing about offers of housing on the basis of race… it is operating in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.”

Facebook firmly denied the allegations.

“We expressly prohibit discrimination, and take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies,” commented the Facebook spokesperson

The spokesperson told NBC News that the meaning of “Ethnic Affinity” was simply being misconstrued.

“For example, some audiences might click on Spanish-language ads for a World Cup sponsorship, versus other audiences that might click more on the same ads in English,” a spokesperson said. “So the sponsor might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry.”

The nail in the Facebook coffin for many is the fact that “whites” are not an exemptible category–at all.

“What makes the exclude feature seem provocative in Facebook’s ad options is that there are only options to exclude certain ‘ethnic affinities,'” said Niklas Myhr, assistant professor of marketing at Chapman University. “Nowhere can you specifically exclude the Caucasian ethnic affinity,” he noted.

Is this simply an innocent oversight and an unintentional loophole left uncovered by Facebook or is this blatant discrimination?

Now when I see ads on my timeline I don’t ask myself why am I seeing these ads? No, the question now has become, what ads am I not seeing?

According to Facebook, I am exemptible.

Featured Image by Brian Solis on Flickr. Available for use under CC 2.0 license

Consumer Expert Denise Hill

Denise is currently a writer and editor for a federal agency in Washington, DC. She is an open-minded free spirit always ready for new adventures. She enjoys traveling and relishes being exposed to alternate points of view. Faith, family and finances are the core of her value system. She follows her own path and marches to her own beat. She is a dream chaser and with her husband and best friend by her side, she plans to take over the world.