Facebook is going to stop letting advertisers exclude certain ethnic races in their ad targeting

Mark ZuckerbergJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesMark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.

Facebook announced on Friday it is going to remove an option that allowed advertisers to exclude certain ethnic groups from their targeting.

The social network has offered the ability to exclude “Ethnic Affinity” groups for a couple of years, but the feature was thrust into public attention last month, thanks to an article from ProPublica.

The article explained housing or employment ads that exclude people based on race, gender, or other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law — but the author managed to purchase an ad aimed at house hunters that excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people that was approved within “15 minutes.” This month, a lawsuit seeking class action status alleged Facebook was violating federal fair housing laws and civil rights laws for allowing the option.

On Friday, Facebook’s VP of US public policy and chief privacy officer Erin Egan published a blog post outlining that “discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.”

Facebook is making a number of changes to address the issue. It is disabling the ethnic affinity targeting option for ads it identifies as offering housing, employment, or credit products and building tools. The company is also building tools that can automatically identify when an advertiser in one of these sectors has attempted to exclude an ethnic group from its targeting.

In addition, Facebook says it wants to provide more clarification and education to prevent marketers from running discriminatory ad campaigns.

Egan said Facebook met with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois and the Congressional Black Caucus, and U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez of California and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss how the site can do better to target discrimination.

Facebook also spoke with the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Brookings Institution, and Upturn.

Egan concluded: “We are making these changes to deter discrimination and strengthen our ability to enforce our policies. We look forward to finding additional ways to combat discrimination, while increasing opportunity, and to continuing our dialogue with policymakers and civil rights leaders about these important issues.

Facebook’s ethnic affinity targeting option has been compared to racial profiling by detractors, but the company has argued that its advertising policy prohibits using its targeting features to discriminate against a group of people.

The feature does have legitimate uses: Universal Studios, for example, used it to show different versions of the “Straight Outta Compton” trailer to black and white audiences.

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