ACLU Says Facebook Enabled Companies to Target Job Ads to Male Users

Charges have been filed against the social network, 10 advertisers

Facebook has been taking steps to curtail abusive use of its targeting. Getty Images

Facebook’s job application tool, which was rolled out in February 2017 to carve into LinkedIn’s dominance in that sector, just hit its first speed bump.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) teamed up with Communications Workers of America and workers’ rights law firm Outten & Golden to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Facebook and 10 companies that advertised jobs via its platform, claiming unlawful discrimination and saying that the advertisers used the social network’s targeting capabilities to deliver their ads solely to male users.

Outten & Golden attorney Peter Romer-Friedman said in an ACLU release, “The internet did not erase our civil rights laws. It violates the law if an employer uses Facebook to deny job ads to women. The last time I checked, you don’t have to be a man to be a truck driver or a police officer. But Facebook and employers are acting like it’s the 1950s, before federal employment law banned sex discrimination.”

Facebook corporate communications manager Joe Osborne responded to the filing with a statement: “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook. It’s strictly prohibited in our policies, and over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We are reviewing the complaint and look forward to defending our practices.”

The ACLU alleged in its charges that Facebook earned revenue from job ads that were delivered selectively based on age and gender, adding that most of the employers’ ads targeted males in fields that are traditionally dominated by men, excluding women and older potential applicants.

The organization added, “Although online platforms are generally not liable for publishing content created by others, the charges assert that Facebook can be held legally responsible for: creating and operating the system that allows and encourages employers to select the gender and age of the people who get their job ads, including providing employers with data on users’ gender and age for targeting purposes; delivering the gender- and age-based ads based on employers’ preferences; and acting as a recruiter connecting employers with prospective employees.”

ACLU Women’s Rights Project senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin said in a blog post, “The only difference between Facebook’s ad targeting practice and the sex-segregated classified ads of yore is that Facebook—unlike newspapers, which are distributed to the general public—can actually ensure that specific ads are only delivered to its male or female users, or to users of a specific age range, according to the advertisers’ selection.”

She also pointed out that advertisers could potentially use Facebook’s lookalike audiences targeting feature to deliver ads solely to people who share the same traits as their current workforces.

Osborne stressed that Facebook has taken steps to prevent this sort of behavior, including reviewing its targeting tools, which resulted in the elimination of more than 5,000 targeting options last month.

He added that the social network will soon require all advertisers to agree to comply with its anti-discrimination policies and the appropriate laws, saying the company receives “constant feedback” from experts in the fields of privacy, data ethics and civil rights, as well as charitable and advocacy organizations.

The 10 advertisers that were named in the charges represent a wide variety of sectors:

  • Abas USA, a global software developer
  • Defenders, an installer of home security systems
  • Enhanced Roofing & Modeling, a roofing and remodeling company
  • The Greensboro (N.C.) Police Department
  • JK Moving Services, an independent moving company
  • Nebraska Furniture Mart, a home furniture retailer
  • Need Work Today, an employment agency that focuses on farm, construction, trucking and aviation employers
  • Renewal by Andersen, a window replacement and installation company
  • Rice Tire, a tire retailer and provider of auto repair services with locations throughout Maryland and Virginia
  • Xenith, an athletics equipment manufacturer and retailer David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.