- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2016

Facebook may be violating federal anti-discrimination laws by letting advertisers target users based on “ethnic affinities,” according to a report published Friday.

The social network has long provided advertisers with the option of picking what particular types of users they want their content delivered to, according to factors ranging from musical interests to alma mater. In November 2014, the network began allowing advertisers to target specific “ethnic affinities” — Facebook-defined categories including African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic.

Facebook previously defended the advertising tool by saying the company doesn’t categorize users by race. Instead, rather, an account holder’s specific “ethnic affinity” is determined by an automated process that puts each user in a category according to their various interests and backgrounds.

“What we are referring to in these affinity groups is not their genetic makeup, but their affinity to the cultures they are interested in,” Facebook said previously.

“They like African-American content,” a Facebook representative previously explained to Ars Technica. “But we cannot and do not say to advertisers that they are ethnically black. Facebook does not have a way for people to self-identify by race or ethnicity on the platform.”

According to ProPublica, however, Facebook could be in violation of federal law by allowing advertisers to purposely exclude certain “affinities” from receiving their ads.

As an experiment, ProPublica paid Facebook $50 to a promote an event in New York City geared toward individuals likely to be interested in buying a home based off their online activity. The journalists were able to narrow down its target audience even further, however, by asking Facebook not to deploy the ads to individuals with “affinities” for blacks, Asians and Hispanics.

By excluding people based on their likely race, Facebook may have run afoul of at least two federal anti-discrimination statutes, according to ProPublica. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal to publish a housing ad “that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin,” and  the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the “printing or publication of notices or advertisements indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination” in jobs ads.

ProPublica presented its findings to civil rights attorney John Relman prior to publication, who called the revelation “horrifying.”

“This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find,” he said.

Responding for the social network, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy told ProPublica that the social network takes a “strong stand” against advertisers who misuse its platform.

“Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” Facebook’s Steve Satterfield told ProPublica. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”

When asked why it only took 15 minutes for the event ad to be approved, ProPublica said Facebook declined to comment.

In a statement later Friday, the social network said it believed “multicultural advertising should be a tool for empowerment,” and condemned its services being abused for discrimination.

“We are committed to providing people with quality ad experiences, which includes helping people see messages that are both relevant to the cultural communities they are interested in and have content that reflects or represents their communities — not just generic content that’s targeted to mass audiences,” said Christian Martinez, Facebook’s head of multicultural sales.

“We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law. We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies,” he said.

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