Marketers using Facebook Inc.’s (NASDAQ:FB) social media platform will no longer be allowed to buy housing, employment and credit-related ads that target or exclude certain ethnic groups. A report last month from investigative-news site ProPublica sparked the change. The publication claimed it had been able to purchase an ad targeted to Facebook members looking for a home excluding anyone with an “ethnic affinity.”
While it isn’t possible to target someone specifically by race, Facebook did allow advertisers to market to people by six “ethnic affinity” categories: African-American, Asian-American, and four types of Hispanic groups based whether they speak Spanish, English or both. It was also possible to exclude users with one of these affinities from seeing an ad.
U.S. lawmakers raised concerns that the feature allowing marketers to target users by “ethnic affinity” could be discriminatory. Civil-rights advocates worried that it seemed to violate federal housing laws. Facebook initially defended the practice, but ultimately decided to change its policy.
Erin Egan, vice president of U.S. public policy and chief privacy officer at Facebook, said in a blog post, “There are many nondiscriminatory uses of our ethnic-affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads.” Facebook said it would update its ad policies to require advertisers to agree not to discriminate in advertising on the site. The company also said that it would build tools to “detect and automatically disable” the use of this type of marketing on the site.
Facebook said that it has met with a number of government leaders over the past few weeks, including New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Congresswoman Robin Kelly from Illinois, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Egan said in a statement, “We look forward to finding additional ways to combat discrimination, while increasing opportunity, and to continuing our dialog with policymakers and civil rights leaders about these important issues.”
This issue was just the latest in a string of controversies surrounding Facebook in recent months. The U.S. presidential election sparked a debate over whether the company was allowing fake news and misinformation to spread on its platform. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said at an industry conference Thursday that it was “crazy” to think fake news influenced the election. He also noted that Facebook’s news feed algorithm remains a work in progress.
Facebook has become a major source of information for its 1.8 billion monthly users and an increasingly important avenue for advertisers to reach audiences. Facebook’s news feed is a primary source of news for an estimated 44 percent of Americans.