Facebook will stop allowing ad buyers to target by age, gender or ZIP code when offering credit, employment or housing, according to ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization based in New York.
The agreement was part of a large settlement with civil rights organizations. Excluding people based on personal categories is illegal, and ProPublica found that Facebook had allowed that practice since at least 2016.
ProPublica bought several housing ads on Facebook and was able to exclude Jewish and African American people, and it found ads for well-known companies like Verizon and Uber that excluded potential employees by age and gender.
“This settlement is a shot across the bow to all tech companies and platforms,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a lawyer with Outten & Golden in Washington, who along with the ACLU represented the plaintiffs. “They need to understand that civil rights apply to the internet, and it’s not a civil rights-free zone.”
As per the terms of the agreement, Facebook will create a brand new portal that will be separate and have credit, job and housing offers. Advertisers won’t be able to target users in areas smaller than a 15-mile radius, which activists say will help prevent redlining of neighborhoods.
Facebook said it hopes to put the changes in place by the end of 2019.
In addition, the list of categories ad buyers can use to pinpoint potential customers is going to shrink, from several thousand choices to a few hundred. Critics have said categories that are very specific, such as one for people who are interested in wheelchair ramps, can essentially be used to discriminate.
Facebook also agreed to add a page where users can see all housing ads, regardless of whether they were targeted or not, and to study its own algorithm for bias.
“There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a written statement on Tuesday (March 19).