Facebook Is Revamping Its Targeting for Housing, Employment and Credit Ads

The changes are part of settlements of lawsuits and EEOC complaints

Facebook aims to implement its ad-targeting changes by the end of the year. Getty Images
Headshot of David Cohen

Facebook is implementing several changes to its targeting policies for ads dealing with housing, employment and credit as part of the company’s settlements of several class-action lawsuits and complaints.

In one of the complaints, the American Civil Liberties Union teamed with Communications Workers of America and workers’ rights law firm Outten & Golden last September to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Facebook and 10 companies that advertised jobs via its platform, claiming unlawful discrimination and saying 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 response to Tuesday’s settlement, “We’re happy with the groundbreaking changes we secured in this first-of-its-kind settlement. We were honored to represent workers. In any settlement, you don’t get everything you want—that’s the way the world works. But the lion’s share of issues we raised in litigation and made public, and the things we wanted to change, are being done here.”

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a Facebook post discussing the settlements, “Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”

And the social network will begin the process of doing better with three key changes: Age, gender and ZIP code targeting is no longer allowed on ads for housing, employment and credit; interest segments for ads in those categories have been slashed from thousands to hundreds; and a new transparency tool is being built to provide information on all current housing ads being run in the U.S.

Facebook is creating a separate portal for housing, employment and credit ads on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. All ads in those categories must be created via the portal, and if the social network detects ads that have been created elsewhere, they will be blocked and the advertisers will be rerouted to the portal.

Gender, age and multicultural affinity targeting options will not be available within the portal, nor will targeting by ZIP code: Ads must have a minimum geographic radius of 15 miles from specific addresses or the centers of cities.

The portal also excludes targeting options related to protected characteristics or classes, such as race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, family status, disability and sexual orientation.

When lookalike audiences are used for housing, employment and credit ads, categories such as gender, age, religious views, ZIP code and membership in Facebook groups cannot be used in creating those audiences.

Romer-Friedman said, “We don’t think lookalike audiences should ever be used in these types of ads, but the settlement greatly reduces the chance of lookalike ads being used to discriminate against people in protected classes.”

The number of interest segments available for housing, employment and credit ads has been downsized from several thousand to a few hundred.

Interests that are used the most by advertisers in those categories will remain, such as real estate, credit card, apartment, house, renting, employment agency and job interview. But those related to protected classes were removed.

Finally, the new transparency tool Facebook is developing will enable people to search and view all current housing ads in the U.S., regardless of whether those ads would potentially be shown to them.

ACLU senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin said in a statement reacting to the settlements, “As the internet—and platforms like Facebook—plays an increasing role in connecting us all to information related to economic opportunities, it’s crucial that micro-targeting not be used to exclude groups that already face discrimination. We are pleased Facebook has agreed to take meaningful steps to ensure that discriminatory advertising practices are not given new life in the digital era, and we expect other tech companies to follow Facebook’s lead.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.