Facebook Faces Civil Rights Lawsuit Over Ad-Targeting Based on ‘Ethnic Affinities’

By Erik Oster 

Facebook is facing a U.S. District Court lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, alleging the social network’s ad-targeting practices violate The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

MediaPost reports that the lawsuit was brought by New York resident Karen Savage, Gretna, Louisiana resident Victor Onuoha and New Orleans resident Suzanne-Juliette Mobley — all Facebook users who say they have viewed ads for jobs and/or housing on the social network in the past year.

“The lawsuit is utterly without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “Multicultural marketing is a common practice in the ad industry and helps brands reach audiences with more relevant advertising. Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law.”

Late last month we wrote about ProPublica’s report that Facebook allows advertisers to exclude users from seeing ads placed on the social network based on their “ethnic affinities.”

When ProPublica purchased an ad from Facebook for an event about affordable housing, it was given the option to exclude based on “ethnic affinities” including African American and Hispanic. When ProPublica showed civil rights attorney John Relman that they were able to exclude minorities from such an ad, he called it “about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”

Facebook contended in a follow-up email to us that, since the ad was not actually for housing but for an event related to fair housing policies, it was not related to the Fair Housing Act. The social network’s head of multicultural operations at Facebook, Christian Martinez, responded to ProPublica’s story in a post clarifying that “Facebook 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.”

He contended that this allows Facebook to let advertisers reach certain groups directly, “a process known in the ad industry as ‘exclusion targeting,'” and that “it’s important to know that there’s also negative exclusion — for example, an apartment building that won’t rent to black people or an employer that only hires men. Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law.”

The individuals involved in the lawsuit allege Facebook hasn’t done enough to address such ads, stating, “No user can tell whether they are subject to illegal discrimination, because the discrimination occurs with the ads they do not see, As a result, the problem will not be remedied unless Facebook is forced to take additional action.”